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Authors: Max Gilbert

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BOOK: RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK
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Finally he knocked.

No answer. Whether the chief knew he was due to report, or recognized the knock, or had an uncanny sixth sense that told him who it was, no answer.

Cameron knew he was in there, because he could hear his voice on the telephone.

He waited, then he knocked again.

No reaction. It was like being a ghost.

Finally he opened the door, went in.

The chief was there big as life, scanning reports.

Cameron closed the door, stood waiting.

Somebody came in, somebody went out. The chief spoke to him all right, had no difficulty seeing or hearing him.

Cameron cleared his throat.

The chief's eyes just wouldn't go up, he couldn't hear a thing.

Cameron went over to the desk and stood there right in front of him.

The chief snapped on a desk light. "Gets dark early," he mumbled indistinctly to himself.

Finally in desperation Cameron said, "Chief, I'm standing here. I'm waiting to speak to you."

The chief got through with one report. He rummaged looking for another, found it, started on that.

"Chief," said Cameron, "you've got to hear my side of it at least."

The chief stuck the tip of his little finger in one ear, and shook it out, as though something in the air bothered him.

"There was a slip-up, that was at least as much the fault of the Honolulu police as mine! I was in Frisco, I wasn't even there. When the ship got to Yokohama the captain wired back a report to the Honolulu authorities, but it was too late by then. They forwarded it to me. Two police detectives and one policeman boarded the ship at Honolulu at nine A.M. that day to search for her. Fifteen or twenty minutes later a second policeman showed up, as if to join them. He wasn't stopped, wasn't questioned, they thought it was just police routine. When the detectives went ashore again, they still just had one policeman with them. The second stayed behind in full sight of everyone, on guard duty. It was done so openly it never occurred to anyone to check up on it. He was never seen to leave, but then once the ship was under way, he was no longer seen aboard either, so everyone thought he'd left."

The chief didn't hear a word. He was signing something. Now he was blotting it. He looked right through Cameron at the clock on the wall, then he looked down again.

"A new mess boy was signed on at Honolulu. I went out there myself and checked, and he was a legitimate replacement. But--here's the angle, chief--several of the other crew members claimed later that he looked different to them afterwards than when he first came aboard. Like two different people. Nobody investigated, nobody did anything about it. There was a half-breed Hawaiian mess boy's name down on the list, and there was a half-breed Hawaiian mess boy to match up with the name, and that satisfied them. Then he jumped ship at Yokohama anyway, so it was too late to investigate by that time. Chief, a second murder occurred on that ship, and a police uniform was quietly dropped overboard somewhere between Honolulu and the International Date Line. I knew I made a hash of it. But all I can say in my own defense is--"

He brought his hand down on the desk despairingly. "Chief, say something, will you? Cuss me out if you have to! But don't just let me stand here like this--"

"Harkness!" the chief called stridently.

A desk sergeant stuck his head in.

"Harkness, what's the matter with you?" the chief bawled him out roundly. "Don't let people walk in here unannounced. This is a police station. Don't let just anybody walk in off the streets that feels like it. The first stranger, the first passerby that happens along. The public at large isn't supposed to be admitted, you know. You should take care of that down at the desk at the end of the hall. Now will you please clear this place out for me; I've got a lot of paper work to do and I only want members of the division in here."

Cameron's head went down, way down, as if he'd never seen his own feet before and was trying to make out what they were.

"You heard the chief," Harkness whispered ruefully, as if he hated to do this himself.

"I'll be back," Cameron muttered doggedly, and he turned on his heel and went out.

"Harkness," said the chief, "there's an old saying. They never come back."

Letter from Garrison to Cameron, originally postmarked Tulsa, addressed to Cameron's home station, forwarded to San Francisco, reforwarded to Honolulu, returned to San Francisco, returned to Cameron's home station, readdressed to Cameron's home address with notation in chief's handwriting, "Wrong address!"

. . . unable to help you when you were out here in July of last year, even though you hung around here for ten days. Well, anyway, to get to the point. Last night my wife and I were returning from the theatre in our car when a staggering drunk standing on the street corner threw a liquor bottle almost directly in front of us. I wasn't able to brake quickly enough, we got a flat. I had him run in for disorderly conduct then and there, but it was a full three-quarters of an hour before I could get repair service and we could get under way again.

We were both pretty put out, as you can imagine, and my wife exclaimed bitterly 'People like that are dangerous! Imagine looping a liquor bottle up into the air like that! Why, it could have come down on someone's head and killed them!'

J said, 'I used to know a fellow that had a habit of dumping them out of planes,' and I went on to tell her about Strickland doing that on one of those plane trips we took when we both belonged to that fishing club. And then suddenly right while I was telling her, I realized that that might have been the very information you wanted when you were out here that time, and which I wasn't able to give you then.

"You may not want the information any longer. It may be stale by now, or maybe it was not what you were looking for in the first place, but ever since last night it has been bothering me, and so to get it off my mind. . . .

Hope this reaches you, etc. . . .

Telegram, Cameron to Garrison:

Information still vitally important. Imperative you answer these questions without delay. Wire me collect. One. What was date of trip on which he did that? Was it May thirty-first? Two. What was plane's destination on that trip? Three. At what time did plane leave airport? Four. Any idea what time bottle was thrown out? Five. Can you estimate plane's average speed maintained during flight?

Telegram, Garrison to Cameron (sent prepaid, not collect):

One. Pretty sure it must have been. Memorial Day. He always did his heaviest drinking on holidays. Two. Lake Star-of-the-Woods, near the Canadian line. Three. Six P.M. Can be positive of this because we always met at airport at the prearranged hour for take-off. Four. Impossible say exactly. Remember lights were already on below us, yet could still see by daylight, so must have been at onset of dusk. Five. Was an old crate. I'd give it 100 m.p.h., but this is sheer guesswork.

The rest took him ten minutes. Not even that. A large-scale master map of the entire state that showed every hamlet, every crossroads, almost every farmstead. Then a ruler-straight line from airport to lake, with the overall air-mile distance marked alongside it. Then an almanac for that year, the year of 'Forty-one, that told him the exact time of the sun's setting, the exact time of nightfall along these latitudes, that day, that year.

Six P.M. marked off first of all at departure point. Then a succession of notches stroked across the main distance line at hundred-mile intervals, to give him the plane's theoretical position at subsequent hours, seven, eight, nine. Then each one divided in two again for the half-hours. Then again for the quarter-hours. Until he had it down to five-minute notches. All this only valid of course if the plane was maintaining an even hundred mile per hour speed. If the pilot had gone faster at certain times, slower at others, good-bye. But that was a chance he had to take.

Then a slashing arc, between the 7:50 and the 7:55 notches, to mark the setting of the sun. Then a second arc to mark the fall of darkness. And in the space enclosed between these two arcs, like parentheses, he had his bullseye.

Within that whole immediate area, there was only a single hollow circle printed on the map, the customary symbol for a town. With its accompanying name. No other anywhere near it.

That was where. He knew now the "where" that went with the snapshot. At last--one life, two lives too late--he'd found out where.

The old lady sat in the rocking-chair beside the window and stared fixedly out to a great distance. With one hand she held back an edge of the lace curtain. The same lace curtain that had once crept into the background of a faded yellow snapshot, taken long ago.

"She's dead now," she said. "Was it yesterday? Was it many years ago? I don't know, I'm not sure. My heart doesn't tell time so good any more. I only know I'm alone. I only know she isn't here.

"Yes, there was a boy. A boy she loved. She only knew one boy in all her life. She only wanted to know one. Yes, she was going to marry him. She had to marry him or die, I guess." She stopped a moment, abruptly, as though she'd just recalled something. "She died."

She rocked a little, stared out to that great distance.

"She used to meet him every night at eight. Down by the drugstore, down by the square. Well, nearly every night. Once in a great while, when it was raining too hard, or I was cross with her, I wouldn't let her go. She was a good girl, she obeyed. When I wouldn't let her out, he'd come up here instead, stand under her window and whistle, and she'd open it and talk to him, and they'd see each other anyway. I'd let them; I'd hear them, but I'd let them.

"He had a funny little whistle, just for her. I can hear it yet. Not loud, not bold. A gentle, pleading little thing. Like a--like a baby owl that's gotten itself lost. 'Tweet-hoo. Tweet-hoo.' Like that it went.

"A funny thing happened, once about a year ago. One night I was sure I heard it again. Under her window, where it used to come from. It was the middle of the night, and I was lying awake in bed. It kept on, and kept on, so coaxing, so heartbroken. Finally I got up and went in there, to her room. I went to the window and opened it, and he was standing down there. I could see him in the moonlight standing down there. He looked up at me, and I looked down at him. He kept looking up, eyes all hopeful and shining and young. Then he tipped his hat just like he used to, long ago when they were kids, and he said "Can Dorothy come out?" Just like he used to, like he used to long ago.

"I forgot that she was dead.

"I said 'Not tonight any more. It's too late. Tomorrow night.' And I swept my hand at him to show him he should go away. The way you do with the boy that loves your little girl. You know: kind but firm.

"Then I closed the window and turned away. When I got halfway across the room, suddenly I staggered and I thought I was going to faint for a minute. I could see the empty frame of her bed there, all hidden under a big dust-cover, the way I'd left it years ago. I ran back to the window, but there was no one down there; I couldn't see him; he'd gone.

"Was I dreaming? Or was he really there?

"I don't know," she went on presently, "I don't know what this love was. It was bigger than I could understand. Sometimes I think it was bigger than she could or he could, too. I don't know how it came to them. A simple girl like my Dorothy. A plain boy like this Johnny."

The man, the detective, stood there quietly without answering her. How could a thing that was so good become so bad, he was thinking; how could a thing that was so right become so wrong?

She kept staring fixedly out to a great distance, the old lady in the rocking chair beside the window.

7. Reunion

A SHABBY ROOM in a typical small-town hotel. A room of the vintage of about 1916; unchanged since then. The woodwork, including the insides of the window casings, stained an ugly dark walnut. Wallpaper with blisters, where air has crept between it and the plaster; faded red flowers crawling all over it. They look like bugs parading up the walls in symmetrical lines. A light fixture in the center of the ceiling with bell-shaped glass domes over the bulbs.

A young girl and an elderly man are in it. His hair is touched with gray, he has on thick-lensed glasses, he is wearing a white smock to protect his clothes. She is seated before a self-lighted make-up mirror that shines up into her face like a spotlight. She has on a bib to protect her clothes. A towel is pinned back over her hair, concealing it entirely. Strewn all around her, cosmetics such as the theatrical profession knows. He is the one working with them, not she. She sits with her hands folded on her lap. On the floor, on a small stand, a wig waiting to be used.

Before them, propped upright on the dressing table, two things: a yellowed, faded, almost blanked-out snapshot of a young girl that must have been taken years ago. Of a young girl, standing on a porch step, one foot raised to the step behind her, smiling into the sun. That's on the left of them. And on the right of them, an oversized enlargement of the same subject. But this time of the girl's head only; her body, the porch steps, and the background, left out. A gigantic head, larger than life, craftily restored. Notations pencilled perpendicularly down its edge, as a sort of a guide chart.

Hair parted on left. 14" bob.

Brows three shades darker. Chautun No. 3.

BOOK: RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK
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