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KNIFE IN THE DARK

 

CHAPTER I

Dead Passenger

THE PILOT knew his trade. I scarcely felt the big airliner’s wheels touch the ground. There was no shock, no bounce, no sense of transition from airborne to earthbound. The night was as dark as a pocket in perdition and the storm that had threatened us all the way south from San Francisco was a steady drench now that we had landed in L.A. But at least we had landed, rain or no rain, and presently I would be finding out why the agency had sent me down here in such a hurry to see ex-Senator Cartwain’s nephew.

I waited until the plane had made its taxi run to the passenger apron. Then, as soon as they had rolled the portable steps into place and opened the door, I checked out past the stewardess and made my break for the canopied runway to the depot building. Even with my hat brim turned down and my topcoat collar up, I got thoroughly soaked before I reached shelter.

Southern California never does anything by halves. Rain in Los Angeles isn’t just rain; it’s a feature production. The movie influence, probably.

In the station, a loudspeaker cleared its metallic throat and began telling the arriving travelers where to wait for their luggage. I had none to wait for. The only clothes I had with me were the wet ones I was wearing, so I wasn’t interested in baggage announcements. I came alert, though, when I heard my name crackling out of the horn.

“Passenger Palmer just in from San Francisco on Flight Eleven. Passenger Palmer just in from San Francisco on Flight Eleven. Attention Passenger Palmer. Will you please call at the Coastal Airways ticket desk on the east side of the rotunda? Thank you.”

When you’ve been a private detective as long as I have, watchfulness and caution become second nature. I headed for the rotunda’s west side, away from where I was wanted, then carefully circled the waiting room. I loitered along casually, as if waiting for an outbound flight.

Passing the newsstand, I dropped a nickel and took a late edition of the Herald-Express, held it up before me and pretended to scan the headlines. Under its cover I delved beneath my left armpit, unholstered my stubby .32 automatic, unobtrusively transferred it to the right side pocket of my topcoat and kept my hand on it.

Then I peered over the newspaper toward Coastal’s ticket desk.

 

A TALL, thin man in chauffeur’s livery stood there talking to the clerk. In turn, the clerk picked up a phone and spoke into it. Right after that, the loudspeaker repeated its plea. “Would passenger Palmer, just arrived from San Francisco on Flight Eleven, contact Coastal Airways at once? Thank you.” Click.

So it was the chauffeur who was having me paged. I decided he looked harmless and I relaxed, moved forward. Then he turned, so that I could see his face, and suddenly there was no more relaxation in me. Tension took its place, a taut, twanging premonition of danger.

I knew the man. Nixon was his name, Edgar Nixon, and he hated my insides. A year ago he had threatened to kill me.

He hadn’t been a chauffeur in those days. He had been an obscure lawyer representing an equipment manufacturer under Congressional investigation for war contract irregularities. And I had been the special agent for the Cartwain Committee who had dug up most of the evidence that finally got Nixon’s client indicted. It was my last G-job in Washington before I quit and came back to private work out here on the West Coast.

As an unexpected afterpiece to this war contract probe, Nixon himself had been disbarred, fined, and jailed for alleged subornation of perjury. That was a charge with which I’d had nothing to do, and of which I didn’t particularly approve. Somehow it seemed to me that he had been made a scapegoat, a whipping boy, merely because he had dared to defend a profiteer. While he might have been misguided in accepting such a tawdry case, I had considered him guilty of nothing worse than unwise judgment.

The Cartwain Committee and the courts, however, thought otherwise. And when Nixon was sentenced he had blamed me for it, had shouted that he would shoot me dead as soon as he was free.

So now he was free.

I waited until his back was to me. Then I walked up behind him, let him feel the prod of the gun in my pocket

“Looking for me, Nixon?”

Red came up his neck, spread to his ears. “My name isn’t Nixon,” he said, without turning. A twitching muscle made his shoulder jump under the formfitting brown whipcord tunic.

“But mine is Palmer,” I said. “Don Palmer, from San Francisco. Just in on Flight Eleven.”

Slowly, then, he faced me. He was having trouble with his breathing, and his muddy eyes were protuberant.

“So you’re the Palmer I was to meet!” he choked.

I let that ride. I also let him see it was a gun I had in my pocket.

“You’re caught off base, Nixon. Don’t try anything you’ll regret.”

“I—I don’t—I wasn’t—I didn’t intend—” The airline ticket clerk was looking at us with too much speculation. I walked Nixon across the rotunda to a spot where we had more privacy.

“When did you get out?” I asked.

“Out—?”

“Of prison. Don’t spar with me.”

“Two—months ago.”

“Escape?”

“Parole,” he said quickly. “I can prove that. I have papers. I can show you.”

“Later,” I said. “Right now I’m more interested in why you were having me paged.”

“I told you. I was sent to meet a Mr. Palmer coming in on the plane from up north.”

“Who sent you?”

“The people I work for. Listen,” he added desperately. “They don’t know I’m Edgar Nixon. They don’t know I’m a jailbird.” Droplets of sweat popped out on his forehead. “I took this job under an alias, and—and—”

 

I STUDIED him, beginning to understand the crazy implausibility of the situation. My agency had dispatched me south to see the nephew of former Senator Marcus Cartwain. Therefore, if Nixon had been sent to pick me up, there was only one possible conclusion I could draw.

“Do you mean to say you’re chauffeuring for the Cartwains?” I demanded. “Ex-Senator Cartwain, who headed the Cartwain Committee that wrecked you?”

“Y–yes.” He spread his hands. “Give me a break, Palmer! Don’t tell them who I am. If you do, they’ll fire me. All I want is a chance.”

“Once you threatened to kill me,” I interrupted him. “Now you beg me for favors.”

“I didn’t m–mean those threats.” The nervous tic twitched his shoulder again. “It was just that I saw my reputation, my career, my whole life going down in ruins. I blamed you, then. But later I realized you had nothing to do with it.”

“Nice of you.”

“It was my own fault, for trying to defend that profiteer. By tying up with a fellow like that I left myself wide open for trouble. Marcus Cartwain was running for reelection and he made political capital out of smearing me. Not that it did his campaign any good when it came to count the votes.”

“So all right,” I said. “So he was licked, and he left his home state and retired to California. So now you’re one of his servants, and that makes no sense whatever. He must realize you hate him for what he did to you. Then why would he hire you, alias or no alias? Don’t tell me he didn’t recognize you. I did. You haven’t changed that much in a year.”

“He hasn’t recognized me,” Nixon said, “because he’s blind.”

I felt my own eyes widening. “What?”

“It’s true. He lost his sight a few months ago. He hasn’t let the newspapers know it. Pride, I guess. But I found it out, and I applied for the job when his former chauffeur quit, and—well, he hired me.”

“Why?”

“Why did he hire me? I’m a good driver. Maybe a better driver than I was lawyer. More careful, anyway.”

“No. Why did you go after the job? What’s your game? Revenge? Waiting for a chance to get even?”

“I’d be silly to admit that, even if it were true. You’d warn Cartwain. You’d tell him who I am.”

“I would indeed.”

“But it’s not true. Maybe I had some such idea at first. I’ve had some pretty bitter moments. But not any more. I’m playing it straight, and if you’ll just give me a break I’ll keep on playing it straight. I give you my oath.”

The oath of a paroled convict isn’t often a thing of too great substance. Yet somehow, as I looked at Nixon, I felt that he meant what he said. He seemed sincere, and as a rule I’m not easily fooled.

I gripped his forearm, squeezed it hard for emphasis.

“I make no promises,” I said. “I want time to think it over. But for the time being, I won’t give you away—and never mind the gratitude.” Then I said: “Now tell me why the Cartwains wanted me sent down to see them.”

“That I wouldn’t know. Young Gerry—I mean Mr. Gerald—is waiting for you out in the car. The Senator’s nephew, you know.” Nixon’s lips curved downward at the corners. “He didn’t like getting wet, so he sent me in after you.”

“Let’s go,” I said, and made for the exit. The rain was still a production number. I was dripping when I reached the limousine; so was Nixon.

He opened the tonneau door for me. “Mr. Gerald, sir, this is Don Palmer of San Francisco.”

Inside the car, Gerald sat in the far corner— dapper, expensively tailored, his expression a little sardonic. Faint lines of dissipation were beginning to etch themselves into his face, and even without the dome light I could see he needed some suntan to relieve his unhealthy pallor.

Behind the chauffeur’s back, I put a quick finger to my lips. Whatever young Cartwain had to tell me, I didn’t want it discussed where Nixon could overhear. That seemed only a reasonable precaution under the circumstances.

 

POKER-FACED, Gerald neither greeted me nor acknowledged my impulsive gesture. That was all right, though. It indicated that he had caught the signal and knew how to obey orders. I was pleased by this, because it helped modify the original impression of him that I’d had back in Washington a year before.

Then he had struck me as a hard-drinking, hard-spending playboy with more money than brains. Now, I reflected, he was beginning to show signs of sense. He was growing up.

I got in beside him, sitting in the opposite corner so my wet topcoat wouldn’t soak his suit the way the coat was soaking the mohair upholstery. Up front, Nixon slid under his wheel, got his en-gine and twin windshield wipers going. The long, luxurious car whispered into forward motion.

I whispered, too, after first making sure the glass partition was closed between tonneau and front compartment.

“Easy with the conversation until later. That is, if what you want to tell me is confidential.”

Gerald nodded absently. The limousine cleared an uneven place in the paving, then flowed like poured oil through Burbank and out toward the Valley. Our tires hissed steadily against the rain-slick asphalt and the side windows began to steam up, so that the occasional service station neon signs we passed glowed like ghostfire, vague and intangible.

Then we made an abrupt turn—and young Cartwain toppled out of his corner to sag limply against me, like a rag doll.

Startled, I shoved him off. “What’s the matter with you?” I said sharply. “Are you drunk?”

He didn’t answer.

I propped him by pressing my hand against his side. Something wet and sticky met my fingers, something that might be blood. It was blood, from a stab wound. I touched his neck, found no pulsation where the artery ran.

Gerald Cartwain was dead. I had been riding with a corpse.

 

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