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The girl had boarded the plane at Kansas City. She wasn't a girl he would have noticed particularly on the street or in a crowded room. He wouldn't have given any special attention to her in an empty room, or on this plane, if she hadn't taken the seat beside him. There were other unoccupied places—no window seats, it was true, but plenty on the aisle. All right, she had to sit beside someone and she'd selected him. Maybe he looked harmless. Actually she'd not given the impression that she'd seen him at all. It was rather that she'd decided to select the third row left up front.
She was medium size and yellow-haired, her dark green suit was a tweed import; her felt hat was shaped like a riding hat, the kind society girls affect to appear country; and her suede pumps were the exact color of the darker weft of the tweed. Her purse was large, of good black leather, well rubbed; she protected it against her in the seat. It was big enough to be a formidable barrier between her and a seatmate. She kept her hands gloved, yellow, crochet gloves, and she used a five-cent yellow pencil on her book of crossword puzzles. It was a long time since he'd seen anyone as devoted to a crossword puzzle as was this girl.
Her face was shadowed in the miniscule overhead shaft of light invented for plane travel, but he had photographed it with his memory on initial appearance. A small chiseled face, a cold little face, but that might have been put on like her horn-rim glasses to preserve her privacy while traveling. The crossword-puzzle book could have been for the same purpose.
He knew the detail of each other face on the plane as well as hers. Not only the passengers remaining, but also those who had left the plane at Kansas City and at Albuquerque, including the thin-faced man, jockey size, who had been his seatmate preceding the girl. Most of them were, by his figuring, safe. The dubious ones he went over in his mind until he would recall a scrap of elbow, a hunch of shoulder, an ear tip, no matter how or where he met it again. Despite the most careful planning, it was never possible to say that the Feds didn't know about a job. They were like the wind, invisible, but able to penetrate the impenetrable room.
It was one reason for his insistence on playing a lone hand. Only because he'd had good luck in carrying through a couple of his initial errands did he get anywhere with the insistence, and because his friends had managed to mess up one of his simplest jobs with their nursemaids. He couldn't be certain that they hadn't set someone to follow him, despite the hell he'd raised the last time that was pulled on him. He could never be certain they weren't having him watched. The bossman was an old woman about a man on a man ad infinitum. No imagination, no scope. But he was the bossman.
He wasn't sure of the young soldier, crumpled asleep in the right aisle rear seat. In front of the pretty, competent hostess, a safe one, with her bright painted-on smile. What was a gawky boy with not so young eyes, wearing a government issue, ill-fitting uniform, doing on board the Constellation from New York? He looked as if he should be thumbing a truck on the highway. And there was the beefy character with the brown hat pulled over his hatchet eyes. Midsection right. Another, Albuquerque on, a withy man, who kept turning discreet attention to the tweed girl.
And the front section right, New York these, a team with bulging briefcases resting against their ankles. The one by the window was a small sandy man in horn-rims. The aisle one was a big fellow, his features handsome in a big vivid face, his well-cut dark hair carrying just the right flair of gray for current glamour. His gray suit was of rich material and rich tailoring. He had a rich voice to match. He could be a big-shot lawyer, the kind you were able to retain for a basic fee of ten thousand per annum. His hands were big and square and clean as the rest of him; he smoked an indefatigable cigarette.
Steve Wintress didn't know why he was particularly uneasy about this one. Maybe the man was too much the sure-of-himself success guy. Maybe because the fellow had tried to strike up a conversation at the Albuquerque break. Not that this should have appeared suspicious. After flying together across the continent, after excusing themselves at the previous stop for trying to be the first off into the smell of fresh air after cold, stale altitude, it wasn't out of line to speak a friendly word. But if the guy was looking for conversation, why didn't he talk to Junior next to him? They'd scarcely exchanged a sentence during the flight.
There was something wrong with the picture, although as yet Steve hadn't figured it. The man couldn't be on his side, he was too assured for that, too lacking in furtiveness. Yet he could scarcely be a Federal and for near the same reasons; the Feds went in for quietness, anonymity. To be sure, there was no telling what either side had dreamed up to make sure of this deal. The Davidian report was too important not to take bold steps to win.
The plane was losing altitude, floating down out of empty darkness to behold the glitter of red and green and yellow lights, flung out like a fabulous jeweled scarf. Phoenix. Next stop L. A. The usual warning glowed against the forecabin's door, cigarettes were stubbed out in the midget ash containers, the pretty hostess made her customary competent double check on seat belts.
Steve didn't have to climb across the tweed girl, she was in the aisle on landing. Nor did he try to jockey the big man for second place, the Albuquerque approach still stuck in his craw. He waited until the aisle was moving before joining the tail end of it. As he passed the crumpled soldier, the boy blinked sleep-grained eyes and closed them again in disinterest.
Outside, the desert heat of the day lingered in the stillness. The stars were bright and sharp as pins. The usual scattering of men and women who, at all suburban airports, watched the plane come in, were there, leaning against the wire fence, sizing up each passenger as if they'd never seen a stranger before. The passengers headed for the lunchroom or to stretch their legs in a stroll along the portal. Steve walked as far as the portal but the big man was too much in evidence there. His voice, if not his words, came reverberating along the walk. Steve walked back to the grass plot for his cigarette, standing in the half-shadow of a dusty tree, smelling the good, hot air.
On the field the big yellow oil-service trucks were diminished to miniatures under the giant Connie wings. The soldier boy emerged from the plane; he was small as a toy, high in the open doorway. The green tweed girl came along the path from wherever she'd disappeared to. As she passed, her eyes met Steve's. Hers flicked away at once; she was discomfited that she'd turned her head to see who was standing there, more so that it had been he. Steve grinned. It was the first moment of relaxation he'd allowed himself in four days.
The twenty minutes were brief. The passengers began trailing early towards the gate, just as if they believed the plane would take off on the dot. They knew better. Steve dropped his cigarette stub to the grass and brought up the rear. He remained well to himself crossing the open field. He was hoisting himself up the uncomfortably steep steps of the ladder when he remembered that he hadn't seen the big man. Against his will—out of curiosity, not nerves—he checked over his shoulder. The man was only now striding through the gate, stopping just inside it to exchange words with the attendants. They were six-footers but the man topped them.
Steve continued up the ladder, ducked his head and reentered the plane. As he proceeded forward along the narrow aisle he checked the passengers automatically, unobtrusively. The hatchet face and three others had disembarked for good at Phoenix. There were three new ones, all women, teachers, smartly dressed, off to a special meeting on the Coast. They unfurled snatches of bright talk a little too loudly, excited in journey's beginning.
The big man didn't plunge down into his seat until just before the take-off. As he clipped his seat belt, he addressed his companion: "L.A.'s fogged in, Timothy." His voice was strong enough to carry through the plane. "It'll be Palmdale or Palm Springs." Whatever else he had to impart was lost in the rabbit rustle of the other passengers. And also because, as if realizing he'd created a commotion, or satisfied that he had, he was content to speak down.
The hostess tried to answer the bubble of questions with the panacea of the professional smile. "We don't know yet. It's possible we may be able to land at Los Angeles. Or Burbank." The pretense soothed some of the protestants. "I'll let you know as soon as the captain has word."
Steve didn't ask any questions. In late November you could expect fog on the Coast. He didn't like this disruption of schedule. He'd given himself a week, including flying time, to take care of the Davidian business. It was overestimation; with any luck at all, it wouldn't take three days. He wasn't superstitious, but a bad break at the start of a job was bad luck. Not that he was worried about missing Albion. Albie would be waiting at the airport whatever time Steve put in. But whatever plans had been made for a meeting tonight wouldn't come off.
The girl put away her book and removed her horn-rimmed glasses. She didn't like this either. Steve spoke to her. Not like a guy trying to get acquainted but like a disgruntled traveler. "Where's Palmdale? I know Palm Springs but where's Palmdale?"
She turned to him and he saw her eyes for the first time without the protective coating of glass. They were too big for her face. Just now they reflected the green of her suit; they were colored like a cat's eyes and were as unwavering.
"I don't know exactly." Her voice was without coloration. "North, I think. In the desert."
He waited a proper moment before asking offhand, "Your first trip out?" as if it were also his first.
"No. I live in California." She was disturbed but not at him. "I wonder what time we'll get in. If they'd told us about this in Phoenix—"
"They never tell the passengers anything," he replied. "They're worse grannies than medicos for keeping the populace ignorant." He eyed her. "You being met?"
She shook her head briefly to discourage questioning. He wasn't discouraged. He went right on talking, as if he were one of those guys who never caught on to a brush-off.
"I am. I was," he amended ruefully. "How long the guy'll wait, I don't know." Albion would wait until hell froze over. But it sounded more human this way.
She murmured vaguely, "We'll be so late an imposition " She ended the conversation there, snipping off her light beam, settling herself for sleep.
He didn't push it further. He too settled himself, although he had no intention of dulling his wits with sleep, or any particular need of it. He was a night man.
It wasn't too long before the hostess went forward. Now they'd have it. She returned almost at once, put on the top lights, and took her stand for a speech. As charming as if she were bringing good news. Not the information that they were landing at some Godforsaken hole where buses would be sent to carry the passengers to the International Airport. Everyone came awake and full of questions. Yes, their luggage would go along with them. Yes, there was a telephone in Palmdale and there'd be time to put in a call. It was the tweed girl who asked that one; someone was expecting her if not meeting her. The hostess parried, she was gentle and bright, and she got away as soon as possible, leaving the passengers friends in misfortune, not seatmates by accident.
The girl said, "She said telephone, singular." Her narrow shoulders gestured: And all of these people!
"I noticed she said there'd be time. How much time?"
The man behind them leaned over Steve's chair. He was all right, his wife was with him, they were returning from a district Kiwanis convention "Don't worry about time. It takes hours to dig up those old crates they send out to Palmdale. Stuffing out of the seats, broken springs, no heat—I said the last time I'd stick to the Chief."
The ones who hadn't been through it before were more resigned. The three young teachers of Phoenix were rather titillated over the unusual. The big man across the aisle actually appeared pleased over the development.
The pilot put the ship down in Palmdale only a little later than it should have landed in LA. There was no scarf of jewels to guide him, only endless open space, forlorn pylons, and a barracks-like shack. The stars were as bright as in Arizona but the air was chill, sending everyone hurrying to the shack.
It shouldn't have surprised Steve to walk into hustle-bustle. Theirs wasn't the only ship set down at this isolated way station; all other lines had been closed out by fog as well. But somehow you didn't expect a desert barracks to be milling with people in the late night. Balancing the confusion was the apathy of those who had been waiting far too long. They huddled beneath their coats on the rickety wicker couches and scuffed chairs. A handful of luckier ones encircled a big iron stove borrowed from an old-fashioned steel engraving.
Most of Steve's plane headed for the wooden counter where two farm women were selling coffee and cold, thick sandwiches. A sparser line formed outside the telephone booth. His girl hadn't been first, someone was already in the booth. She was next, the big man behind her. They were talking in desultory fashion, in the way a man wouldn't miss a chance to talk to an attractive young girl. Not that she was particularly pretty, certainly not now, her face pale and troubled, but compared to the other females in the shack, she was a Vogue model. Steve's gabardine when new hadn't resembled the one draped across the shoulders of the big man.
Steve edged to the outskirts of the food counter. He wasn't hungry; however, the stimulus of coffee would help pass the time. And from this vantage point, he could spot who had cared enough to be first in the phone booth. He was vaguely surprised when the crumpled soldier emerged. Although it was logical; the boy had been in a position to be first off the plane. If he had taken advantage of the last minute of leave, as kids would, he'd need to put in a call quick. The soldier shoved his cap over his other ear and dug his hands into his pockets as he neared the counter. It gave him a more shabby look: The hands-in-pockets gesture evidently wasn't an idle one. He was veering away when Steve got his eye.
"Buy you a coffee, kid." He knew how to say it with just the right rough edge to take off any smarm of charity. He'd worn a uniform himself not enough years ago. "If we can get near enough to buy one."
The kid said, "I'll help push." His sudden grin was more young than his face. The smile went into his eyes and they too were young. It might have been that all he had needed was the transcontinental sleep.
There was an entering wedge behind the sandy man. As Steve moved, he jogged the briefcase under the man's arm, but it was the sandy man who apologized, "Sorry." He balanced two cups of coffee, one for the boss, out of the way. The soldier nailed the spot.
The farm woman's voice was harsh. "Coffee? Beef or ham?"
Steve said, "Two coffees. Beef or ham, soldier?"
"Beef, I guess."
The boy was thin and kids were always hungry. "One of each," Steve said. While they waited he heard the girl's voice.
"Could you get me a cup of coffee?" She was holding a quarter over his shoulder.
He didn't take the coin. "Sure," he said, and "Make it three," to the gaunt woman. He swiveled his head. "Did you get your call through?"
The girl said, "Yes." No more.
The soldier picked up the paper plate of sandwiches and one of the coffees. Steve paid and took up the other cups. "Now if we can find a place to park ourselves."
They were lucky on it. The buses for an earlier plane were coming in, hostesses were passing the word to their charges. The soldier was quick at snagging the couch with the broken springs. It wasn't comfortable but there was room for three. They put the girl between them and passed the sandwiches.
She said, "I'm not hungry."
Excerpted from The Davidian Report by Dorothy B. Hughes. Copyright © 1952 Dorothy B. Hughes. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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