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Authors: George Harmon Coxe

Tags: #mystery, #murder, #suspense, #intrigue, #crime

One Minute Past Eight

BOOK: One Minute Past Eight
11.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

George Harmon Coxe

One Minute Past Eight




IN THE beginning Jeff Lane did not know it was a pick-up. That the idea never crossed his mind was not due to his ignorance of either the technique or the procedure, nor was his Bostonian background or any latent streak of Puritanism a contributing factor. He had been accosted on the street on occasion in the early hours, and women of various ages and inclinations had made opening gambits when perched on near-by bar stools. In this instance it was not the circumstances that fooled him, it was the girl herself.

What made it easier was the fact that this particular New York—Miami flight was no more than half full. For Jeff had been assigned an aisle seat on this afternoon in mid-March and his seat-mate was a red-faced fat man whose bulk extended laterally and put a noticeable pressure on Jeff’s arm and shoulder. As a result, when the passenger warning on the bulkhead winked off, he made his way forward to the unoccupied section and pre-empted a window seat.

When he had adjusted the air vents and got a cigarette going he opened his magazine, thumbing idly through it and glancing out the window as the aircraft climbed and the earth receded. Sometime later—he had not yet begun to concentrate on his reading—the girl went by on her way to the forward rest-rooms and as he appraised her figure from the rear, he knew that this was the same girl who had stood next to him at the ticket counter at Idlewild.

At the time he had been concentrating on his own problems—he wanted to be sure that when he changed planes in Miami his bags would be automatically checked on through to Caracas—but even so he was conscious of a faint odor of gardenias and the impression remained that this girl was both smart and attractive. Now he saw that she was rather tall, that the seams on her nylons were straight, that she moved gracefully even on the high heels. Her tailored suit was a medium gray with a short jacket that lay flat against the neat hips; the piece of felt, hardly larger than a cap, that topped her mahogany-colored hair was dark red, and the leather bag under her arm matched it.

Minutes later some movement caught the corner of his eye and he glanced up to see her coming down the aisle. He got a quick picture of her, enough to know that she was equally attractive from the front, and then, as he started to look away, she smiled. It was a nice friendly smile, surprising him a little so that he was slow to react, and suddenly he realized she was going to speak to him.

The very fact that she took the initiative both flustered and flattered him, and as she stopped with one hand on the top of the seat in front he saw that she had a lovely complexion, that her well-spaced eyes were dark blue, that the odor he had noticed came from two gardenias pinned to her jacket.

“Hello,” she said. “You were next to me at the counter in New York.”

“I remember,” Jeff said.

“I heard you talking about Caracas and I wondered if—” She paused and smiled again, “Do you mind if I—”

She leaned down to remove the crossed seat belts and Jeff pulled himself erect. “Here,” he said. “Sit by the window.”

He stepped into the aisle as she protested. “I just wanted to stop a minute. You’d probably rather read your magazine.”

“I’d rather talk to you,” Jeff said.

“Well”—she slid in front of him and settled herself in the seat—“all right. When I start to bore you I’ll go quietly.” She put her bag in her lap and glanced out the window before she looked at him. “I’ve never been in Caracas,” she said, “and I don’t speak much Spanish and I thought you might be able to tell me what to expect. Have you been there before—I hope?”

“Once,” Jeff said and chuckled. “One full day, from a cruise ship that stopped at La Guaira. But that was five years ago and I understand there’ve been a lot of changes.”

“Do you know Spanish?”

“About ten words.”

“Oh… Well, do you think one can get by without it?”

Jeff said he thought so; at least in Caracas. “Are you on a holiday?”

“For two weeks. I have a brother who works for one of the oil companies. In Carapita. I think I came down on the plane with you from Boston,” she added, digressing. “Is that your home?”

“Yes,” Jeff said. “I’m Jeffrey Lane.”

“Karen Holmes,” she said and smiled again. “How do you do? Are you on holiday too?”

Jeff said no. He said this was just a quick business trip and he did not expect to be in Caracas more than two or three days.

“Lane?” she said as if testing the word. “Would that be the Lane Manufacturing Company in Cambridge?”

Jeff said yes, a little surprised that she should have heard of it, and then asked her where she lived in Boston. They were unable to find any mutual friends but as the plane droned on in the sunshiny world above the blanket of clouds he learned that she had gone to Wellesley and was working as a secretary in one of the insurance companies.

A second glance at the smart sharkskin suit and its accessories told him she must be a first-class secretary and it gave him an odd sense of satisfaction to note that she wore no ring. He noted, too, that in certain lights there was a coppery sheen to her hair, that in profile her lashes would need no mascara, and that her red mouth was softly humorous. Because she was so easy to talk to he found himself telling her he had gone to Cornell and Harvard Business School and that except for two years in Korea he had always worked in the family business, during the summers as a youngster and then, after graduation, moving in to learn the business. He did not add that he was one of the three vice presidents, at twenty-nine, nor that, now that his father was dead, he would some day be president, provided George Tyler of the Tyler-Texas Corporation failed in his present concerted effort to get control of the company.

This was something he had been thinking about most of his waking hours during the past days, and now he deliberately put the matter from his mind. For the moment it was enough that he had a pretty companion, and he enjoyed their effortless conversation until he noticed the sun was beginning to settle in the west. This told him it was nearly time for a drink.

“What would you like?” he asked.

“Oh, dear, I don’t know.” She glanced at her wristwatch. “Could I have a raincheck? Could I wait until we get to Miami? As a matter of fact I was going to suggest it then anyway… But you go ahead if you like.”

He grinned at her and said he could wait. He said there was a place in the terminal and maybe that was a good idea, “I hadn’t realized we were nearly there,” he said, and then, as if to corroborate the statement, one of the stewardesses claimed their attention over the loudspeaker.

They would be landing in twenty minutes, she said, and she wished to remind them to take all personal belongings with them when they left the aircraft.

“Passengers continuing on to Curaçao and Caracas will have a wait of approximately an hour,” she added. “The flight will be announced over the loudspeaker system but please stay within the terminal building so the announcement can be heard. Thank you.”

The International Airport was a busy place at that hour. A plane was loading as Jeff accompanied the girl toward the incoming gate, another was taxiing for take-off. Two were gliding in for landings, the more distant one making its final turn toward the assigned runway. A dozen more silent aircraft stood in a row, their noses slanting obliquely toward the terminal building; refueling crews were busy, and baggage trucks crisscrossed on the concrete behind their midget tractors.

The humid breeze made his winter suit feel heavy, and once inside the building Jeff headed toward the bar and restaurant near the street side. About halfway there he felt the girl’s hand on his arm and when he turned she gestured at the two blue-canvas flight bags he was carrying,

“If you’ll give me mine,” she said, “and five minutes while I fix my face, I’ll meet you by the entrance.”

Jeff said all right and released her bag. When she started off he hesitated a moment and then headed for the men’s room. Here he hung up his trench coat, slipped out of his jacket, and rolled up his sleeves. He washed his hands and face, rubbed wet hands over his dark hair, which was cut rather short and did not need much combing. As he stood drying his hands he was a moderately tall man with a lanky look, and his flat-muscled body moved with an easy co-ordination which might have come from hours of drudgery pulling the number-seven oar on a junior-varsity shell during his college days. His brows were straight above dark-brown eyes which somehow reflected a sense of humor, as did the full easy mouth. His face was too bony to be called handsome, but he had more than average good looks, and now, thinking of Karen Holmes and the journey yet to come, a smile worked at the corners of his mouth and his eyes had the look of a man well pleased with himself.

When he realized he was daydreaming, he threw the towel into the wire basket, donned his jacket, and went back into the waiting-room. A glance at the glass doors of the restaurant told him he was early, and as he started toward them his eyes searched the room to his right. For a moment he thought he saw the dark-red hat flanked by two men who were earnestly talking to its owner. Then a chattering family group moved in front of him, blocking his view. He was standing beside the door when he saw her coming, moving quickly on slender, well-shaped legs.

Not really looking at him, she muttered something about hoping she had not kept him waiting, and then they were inside, finding a small table opposite the bar.

“Scotch, I think,” she said when he had asked what she would like. “I might even have a double if I can have it in a large glass… Do you think they’ll feed us on the plane?”

Jeff realized that the light had begun to fade and saw that it was nearly seven o’clock. He said: “They’ll have to feed us,” and gave the waitress the order, wondering now if there had been some change in the girl’s manner or whether it was his imagination. She had not yet looked him directly in the eyes and her hands were never still as they opened and closed her bag, adjusted the paper doily the waitress had left, and moved the ashtray to one side. Twice she touched the turned-up ends of her hair, and now her glance moved restlessly about the room, as if some inner tension was working on her that had been totally absent on the plane. The arrival of the drinks claimed his attention and he glanced at the check and put a bill on it. Then he saw that she was fumbling in her bag again and asked if she wanted a cigarette.

“I have some, thanks,” she said, and now she brought forth some silver. “But I wonder if you would get me a couple of packs from the machine. I understand they’re expensive in Caracas.”

“Sure” Jeff said. “Let
get them.”

“No, really,” she said and pressed the coins into his hand. “Chesterfield regulars, please.”

He pushed back his chair and went to the vending machine near the door, stopping to read the card and see how much was needed. He had enough change for four packs and he gave three of them to her when he sat down again.

“Well,” he said, realizing for the first time how thirsty he was and lifting his glass, “to a pleasant flight.”

“And a safe one,” she said, her small smile automatic and something in her eyes he could not understand, a shadowy something that seemed in that instant almost more like fear than nervousness.

Then her glance focused on her glass and she took a sip while Jeff swallowed three times, fast, and was glad she had thought to suggest a double.

“That tastes good,” he said when she lowered her glass and took a cigarette from the pack he had put on the table. He gave her a light and looked idly about, refusing to speculate further on the sudden change in her mood.

He heard her ask where he would be staying and he said: “The Tucan. Will your brother be meeting you?”

“No. He can’t get in until the following day. I—I’ll be at the Tucan too.”

He finished his drink and put the glass down, again aware of the uncomfortable heaviness of his suit. The static-like sounds in the room—the buzz of conversation, the clatter of glasses and dishes—were less distinct now and his face felt hot. He took a deep breath and when he looked across the table the girl’s face seemed to waver like a television image not quite in focus. Only her eyes seemed intent and watchful and from out of the distance he heard her speak.

“Is it stuffy in here, or is it just me?”

“Stuffy,” he said, wondering why since the room was air conditioned. “Very stuffy.”

“Then let’s get out in the fresh air.”

She pushed back her chair. He reached for the flight bags and nearly fell over, and then he lurched to his feet, staggering a little before he caught his balance and thinking:

This is ridiculous. Why should a double Scotch hit me like this?
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice sounding curiously remote in his ears. “I’ll be O. K. in a minute.”

Somehow he got through the glass doors and now the floor was tilting and he felt her hand on his arm as she tried to steady him.

She said: “Let’s go outside,” and he felt himself walking. When he stopped he knew somehow that they were standing on the loading platform in the gathering dusk.

He could hear cars pull into the curbing and doors slam and baggage slide gratingly across the concrete. In the background the voices he heard no longer had any meaning. The urge to sit down and rest a minute was overwhelming now and he was vaguely conscious of firm hands supporting his arms. Men’s voices throbbed close by and then he was stumbling along into space. Finally, as his eyes closed, he heard someone telling him to take it easy, to sit back and relax. The last thing he remembered was the distant slam of a car door.

BOOK: One Minute Past Eight
11.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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