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Authors: Helen Nielsen

Severed Key

THE SEVERED KEY

A NOVEL

by

HELEN NIELSEN

a division of F+W Media, Inc.

FOR VIDA

CHAPTER ONE

THE MORNING FLIGHT from Las Vegas arrived at Los Angeles International Airport ten minutes behind schedule due to a strong headwind bearing in from the Pacific. Dropping phantomlike from the low ceiling of a steadily darkening sky, the huge silver plane roared down the runway and manoeuvred artfully to its place at the disembarkment satellite. Inside the glass-enclosed waiting room, Jack Keith snuffed out a cigarette with one suède-booted toe and moved in closer to the arrival gate. He was a tall, husky man of thirty with an unruly mop of red hair and quick grey eyes that had already noticed more about the cluster of people who had come to meet the plane than they imagined could be evident to a casual observer. A professional observer. The weathered trench coat Keith wore over his flannel shirt and levis was loosely belted to conceal the snub-nosed detective’s special strapped to his hip. He was a private investigator and his mission was to deliver the confidential report he carried in a flat leather zipper case to Simon Drake who had telephoned instructions from Las Vegas before boarding the incoming plane.

As the first passengers began to straggle through the gate, a dark-haired young man, theatrically elegant in a fawn-coloured suit, pushed ahead of Keith without apology. Keith glared at his profile: arrogant, deliberately rude, confidently handsome. There was something irritatingly familiar about the face that set him scratching at his memory like a dog trying to locate a buried bone, and the distraction was enough to make him miss Drake’s appearance at the gateway until a lusty shout snared his attention.

“Keith! You made it! Hey, why so grim?”

Simon Drake’s wide grin took a decade off his thirty-five years. He had picked up a movie star tan under the Nevada sun. Wearing a white turtle-necked sweater and madras slacks, he looked as if he had stepped directly from the golf course on to the plane and was waiting for the rest of the foursome to show up.

“I see you’ve got the Meechum report,” he added, taking the zipper case from Keith’s hand. “Good. I’ll have time to go over it before the board meeting in San Diego Monday morning.”

“How’s Wanda?” Keith asked.

“Great! Didn’t you see the press notices after her opening? Sensational. My girl’s found her voice at last. She’s being held over for two more weeks at the Sahara.”

“What about your wedding?”

“After the Sahara engagement. We want some time to ourselves.”

Keith shook his head. “Too late,” he said. “You should have married her before she was a celebrity. You’ll live in a fishbowl now.”

“That’s better than living in the woodwork with a mouse. Didn’t I ever tell you how much I hate home cooking? Come on, let’s get downstairs and see if the baggage is coming through. I’ve got work to do.”

Simon Drake was one of the busiest young lawyers on the west coast. Athlete that he was, his body was still barely able to keep up with his mind. He started towards the down escalator but Keith remained motionless, eyes fixed on the gathering of people at the gate.

“There’s a storm coming in,” he murmured. “Small craft warnings are out.”

“So?” Simon queried.

“Didn’t you tell me on the phone that you were taking your boat home from Marina Del Rey? What’s it doing there anyway?”

“I loaned it to Cappy Anderson,” Simon said. “You know Cappy. He’s a sky pilot on this line. He’s having a thing with one of the new stewardesses and boats are romantic. I left it with him when I went to Vegas with Wanda.”

“You’ll have a rough trip home.”

“Maybe not if I hurry.”

Keith was still loathe to leave. Simon followed the direction of his gaze and frowned. “I don’t see her,” he mused. “It has to be a girl to keep you that fascinated.”

“It’s not a girl,” Keith said. “It’s the profile in the ice cream suit. I know that face.”

Now that he knew what to look for, Simon located the man in the light-coloured suit. “I know him too,” he admitted, “but I didn’t see him on the plane with me.”

“He wasn’t on the plane. He’s been waiting here for it to come in.”

“Then he must have come in on an earlier flight because I saw him in Vegas yesterday. He’s been there all week—about as inconspicuous as a Marine band. I heard that he dropped $40,000 at one dice table and acted as if it were small change. They call him Johnny Sands.”

“Johnny Sands,” Keith repeated. “It doesn’t ring a bell.”

“It would be a pseudonym. Wanda says the rumours have him as an international playboy who’s been seen making the rounds in London and Madrid.”

“Is that so?” Keith mused. “Why then, I wonder, is he greeting Angie Cerva like an old fraternity brother?”

The man called Johnny Sands had stopped searching for faces in the dispersing crowd and stepped forward to grasp the arm of a barrel-chested giant with steel grey hair and a strong, swarthy face. The good arm, the arm that carried a neatly-folded camel-tan overcoat, not the right arm that hung loosely under the sleeve of a dark, expensively tailored suit. Simon watched the meeting with puzzled eyes.

“Are you sure that’s Cerva?” he asked.

“I couldn’t mistake the big boy himself,” Keith insisted. “The organization calls him ‘the banker’. He’s the financial wizard of the east coast branch.”

“This isn’t the east coast.”

“That’s what I’m thinking. Times change. Operations grow. See that limp arm. There’s a dozen stories about that. Some say he was knifed in an intra-family feud. Some say a jealous mistress took a shot at him and was never seen again. Others say a shark got it when one of the Miami brothers had him thrown off his yacht. But that was ten years before Angie moved up to the boardroom. The international playboy plays with a rough crowd.”

“There was talk in Vegas that Sands was dickering for a Strip hotel,” Simon said. “Cerva could be selling.”

“It’s possible. Anyway, it explains the presence of the screws over near the telephones. See how interested they are in the glad-hand greeting?”

Jack Keith was right. Two men were standing near the row of telephones in view of the gate. One was about six foot four, ruddy faced and clean shaven. He was wearing a nondescript grey suit, a black raincoat and rubbers on his size twelve shoes. He was about fifty and did have the look of a veteran policeman. His companion was about twenty years younger, of a much lighter build, wore tortoise-rimmed glasses and a small dark beard. His clothes had an ivy league cut and he might have been a professor or a drop-out from a peace march.

“Screws?” Simon repeated doubtfully.

“Federal screws. They drove up in a black Caddy and parked in a VIP zone just as I came into the terminal. I noticed the plates were from Washington DC. Interesting, isn’t it?”

“If that’s how you get your kicks while waiting for a plane to land, I suppose it’s interesting,” Simon admitted. “Everybody needs a hobby.”

“And everybody who isn’t as successful as the fabulous Simon Drake needs to work for a living,” Keith responded, “which, for me, means keeping my eyes open for off-beat characters who float into any beautiful Los Angeles smog alert. Look, man, your baggage won’t be down for a while. You could at least buy me a drink after rousting me down here at this ungodly daylight hour. You know that I’m night people.”

Keith had apparently decided to leave Johnny Sands and Angie Cerva to the competent surveillance of the men he had identified as federal agents. It was almost noon. The bar was open and Keith was right about the baggage, and, since he never discussed his other cases, there might be some reason why he wanted to remain within observation distance of the tableau in the waiting room. “All right,” Simon agreed. “One Bloody Mary for an eye-opener. Just one. Then you drive me down to the boat.”

“I still think you should hire a car and drive back to Marina Beach,” Keith said.

“And I still think you sound menopausal.”

Simon stepped inside an archway that led to the bar and ordered the drinks. A matter-of-fact voice on the PA system was announcing that the New York flight, already twenty minutes late, would be further delayed. The disembarking passengers had now cleared the gate at the Las Vegas landing, but Johnny Sands and his unorthodox companion still lingered just outside the bar entrance. The two men standing near the telephones hadn’t moved. The drinks appeared and Keith grabbed his with both hands.

“Now you’ve got me doing it,” Simon said.

“Doing what?”

“People-watching.”

“Sure. It’s my favourite pastime for fun and profit. Well, here’s to the lovely Wanda and the bridegroom-to-be—hopefully.”

“What do you mean by that?” Simon demanded.

Keith didn’t answer. He was too busy draining his glass. Simon hadn’t touched his. The PA came on again with another bland announcement concerning the flight from New York. Persons meeting the plane were requested to go to the upstairs information booth. Sands and Cerva stopped conversing and listened to the announcement. Sands took a step towards the information centre, hesitated, and then moved out of Simon’s range of vision leaving Angie Cerva standing alone.

“It’s rough upstairs,” Simon reflected. “A lot of people are going to be waiting for planes today.”

“And should be waiting for boats—” Keith began. He got no further with his protest. At that moment two men in dark blue flight uniforms strode briskly across the floor. Simon, still holding the untouched glass in his hand, stepped out into the foyer as they approached. “Hey, Chris,” he called. “Nice flight. Thanks for the ride.”

Both uniformed men stopped. The one wearing the captain’s insignia stared at Simon blankly. Recognition came slowly as if his mind was returning from another sphere. “Oh, Simon Drake, isn’t it?” he said.

“That’s right. We’ve met a few times at Cappy Anderson’s place. If I had known you were the pilot on that flight, I would have come up front for a chat. How’s Ruth?”

The captain was still reacting slowly.

“Ruth—your wife,” Simon prodded. “What’s the matter? Have I said something wrong?”

“Then you didn’t see it,” the captain said.

The junior officer tugged at his arm. “Chris, we’ve got to make a report—”

“That’s all right,” Chris said. “Drake knows Cappy. He can do me a favour. Listen, Drake, maybe you weren’t aware of it but we were holding a pattern up there for about five minutes so a special flight could get off the runway. I took an extra sweep out over the ocean. That New York flight was up there too—just coming in. Something went wrong—God only knows what—and it went down. Straight down—all the way into the drink. Are you going to use that booze, or are you holding it for a friend?”

“It’s all yours,” Simon said.

The captain took the glass and drank quickly. “Thanks,” he said. “Not that it helps much. Now I’ve got to go to operations and report on what I radioed in when I saw the plane go down. If you can call Cappy—”

“I’m on my way to his apartment,” Simon said.

“That’s even better. Tell him what I told you. The plane went into the sea. We made another pass over it—Sam saw it, too. The damn plane didn’t float at all. It nosed straight down and just kept going. There were ninety-six people on that flight, Drake, and now they’re all under water. One of them—the pilot—was Cappy’s brother-in-law.” All of the blood seemed to have drained from the captain’s face and his hand shook as he returned the glass. “Damndest thing I ever saw,” he added. “Straight down into the sea. Nothing but the tail showing when we came in to land.”

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