Chapter 11. I sat in a small deli near Kudlow’s, savoring a pastrami on rye, chips and a small cucumber salad

I sat in a small deli near Kudlow’s, savoring a pastrami on rye, chips and a small cucumber salad. Okay. I had done my bit for Ellis. Now how did I go about getting home? As I pondered, weak and weary, there was a nearly soundless twang! as a bra strap parted. Ah, my ubiquitous witch! But I was too eager to solve my travel problems to give her much time. I whipped into the ladies’ room, yanked off the bra, stuffed it in my purse and hardly missed a thought.

None of my get-home options thrilled me. I could drive to Hyannis, turn in the car and call someone to come and get me. But Mom worked Wednesdays, and Aunt Mae was a reluctant (and terrifying) driver. Sonny was away. Cassie was God knew where—too complicated. I could drive back to Boston, turn in the car and catch the afternoon flight, but that meant more driving—in the wrong direction.

There was another possibility. If Offshore Airways had not switched to their curtailed winter schedule, maybe they had an afternoon flight from Providence to Provincetown, and I could turn the car in at Providence Airport.

I finished my cholesterol special, downed my Diet Coke—God, how I missed the Rat!—and looked around for a pay phone. My cell phone, of course, was safely locked in the compartment of my car at Ptown Airport. Moments later I fed quarters into a wall phone. Offshore assured me they had seats on a 3:15 flight, and I was on my way to the Providence, R.I. Airport. I’d have an hour’s wait, but who cared? I wouldn’t be in a car!

Fortunately the airport is easily found. I turned in the car without parting sadness and walked into the terminal. About to hand the Offshore agent my credit card, I heard a voice behind me say gruffly, “Now, just come quietly, miss. Don’t make me have to use force.” I spun around.

“Cassie! Am I glad to see you! What the hell are you doing here?” She was dressed in her uniform of khaki shirt with white ascot, navy slacks, a light blue suede jacket with “Outer Cape Charter” embroidered in gold over the breast pocket. A brimmed officer’s cap with gold wings finished the look of a modern-day Amelia Earheart, and the Offshore agent was batting her eyes furiously.

“I just brought four women down to catch a Delta to Atlanta. They’re going to some teachers’ thing. I’m heading home. Want a ride?”

“Do I ever! I’ll ride on the wing. Anything to be going home.” I turned to follow her outside.

The agent called after me, “Do I take it you will not be flying Offshore Air this afternoon?” She sounded plaintive. Had I been the only passenger?

I turned back. “Afraid so. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. See you next time.” I waved and left. I caught up with Cassie. “What are you doing at the Offshore terminal?”

“Same as Boston and Hartford. I buy my fuel here, have the plane serviced, etc., and they let me use their facilities. They’ve cleaned the plane and filled it up. We can leave anytime.”

“Let’s go.” I followed her aboard the neat, sleek little twin-engine plane. It was easy to see why she loved it so.

“Come up and be my copilot, if you promise not to curse my airplane.” Cassie grinned. I was delighted to serve. I’d learned a few of those duties and jumped at any opportunity to perform them. If I ever could afford it, flying lessons were on the list. I closed and locked the outside door behind us and followed her into the cockpit. “Close the curtain to the cabin,” she said. “That way we can smoke later, without getting the smell into the cabin—I hope.”

We fastened seat belts, Cassie started the engines and waved goodbye to the Offshore crewman who’d been standing by with a fire extinguisher. She and I both donned earphones with mouthpiece—me just to listen. I heard her amplified voice, slightly tinny as she began her ritual conversation with the Providence control tower.

Very shortly we clattered and bounced along the taxiway. Strange how planes seemed so clumsy on the ground, as if they knew it was not their milieu. She halted next to the end of the runway as a big 737 flared out and roared past us about thirty feet overhead. Then there was a squeal and puff of smoke from the tires and it was down.

“Give me twenty degrees flaps,” Cassie said, and I carefully set the lever. She spoke into the mike. “Providence Control. This is Outer Cape Charter twin Beech two-one-seven, at the threshold of runway two-three, requesting takeoff instructions.”

“Outer Cape, Providence Control. You are number one to take off on runway two-three. Wind is southwest at ten. Barometer is two-niner-niner-four and steady.”

Cassie ran up the engines, slipped the brakes and we were rolling. Even in a small plane the power was wondrous to feel. The plane actually seemed to yearn to be away, pressing forward into the wind like a woman running pell mell toward her lover’s arms. There was a little lurch, the nose went up and Cassie turned toward me. “Wheels up.” I reached for the switch and heard the reassuring whine, followed by a solid thunk as they settled into the wells.

“Flaps up.” I carefully reset the lever.

As we climbed toward the bright fall sun and the crystal blue around it the words came out unasked. “ ‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter silvered wings.’ ”

Cassie smiled. “Had to be written by a pilot.”

“It was. A fellow named Magee. He was in the RCAF in World War Two.”

“Any more to the poem?”

“Quite a bit. I just can’t remember it. It ends with something like, ‘climbing through grey to brilliant sun, and reaching out to touch the face of God.’ Magee was killed in combat right after that. Age nineteen. A bit young to put a lid on it.”

Cassie answered softly, “Maybe he’d done all he needed to.” I put that away to think about later.

“Straighten out on sixty degrees and level off at three thousand. I’ll go get us some coffee from the thermos.” She was standing up before I realized she was talking to me.

Then suddenly there I was with my very own airplane! I could understand why Cassie loved to fly. She’d been taught by her Air Force father but had bypassed the military as a career herself—for the obvious reason. She’d gotten into the pilot training course of a large airline but had left it when she discovered how unfairly female pilots were treated. Cassie’s dad staked her to the down payment on the sweetheart Beechcraft, and the rest was history.

Cassie returned with two plastic mugs. I was very proud when she simply set the automatic pilot and lit a cigarette. “So how was the trip?”

I told her the generalities. I did mention my reaction to the very attractive Dean Trinler, though I did not go into the lurid details. She shook her head sadly. “That’s your problem, Alex. You’re too damn careful. You should have invited her to dinner and then gone for it!”

I yawned. I wasn’t sleepy but my ears were plugging up. Funny, altitude usually didn’t bother me. “She probably has a husband and four kids.” I pulled out the ashtray on my side and joined her in a smoke.

“So she says no thanks. You really need to be more assertive.”

“Yeah, like with the blonde at your party. I’m making my move and she damn near kills me.”

“She—the blonde—whatsername—felt awful about that. She really was put up to it. I’m sure she’d like to see you again.”

“So she can break my leg?” I tapped Cassie’s arm and indicated another small plane several hundred feet below us on a reciprocal course.

“Thanks,” she acknowledged. “Plenty of room. How’s your wrist? Lainey says a sprain like that can feel worse than a clean break.”

“Sore and achy. I’ve been driving all over. The bandage helps, but I haven’t been wearing it much. Anyway—moving along from homicidal blondes, what’s new at home?”

“Same old, same old. Oh, Peter and the Wolf are looking for you. I ran into them at the Wharf Rat, and Lainey saw them at the market. They were asking if we knew how to reach you. Didn’t say why. I didn’t realize you were so friendly.”

“We aren’t close, really. It’s their houseboy who got killed the other night. They’re probably afraid it makes them or their place look bad and just want reassurance. I can’t think of any other reason.” Actually, I could think of several, the first being that Mitch was all over them, the second being that perhaps he had good reason.

I stared down at the now choppy bay and recalled last Saturday. Wolf had been livid at the memory of how Lewis had insulted Peter by breaking his father’s watch. Wolf had started drinking early. He might well have continued into evening, nursing his anger as he went along. What if Lewis had returned to his room for something he’d forgotten? He and Wolf might have met. If the confrontation and taunting had started all over again, I doubted Wolf would have contented himself with a little shove or two and a good cry. Wolf was tall, in good shape. He might have been able to give Lewis a fair pounding. But was he capable of killing him?

“Probably,” I sighed. Cassie looked at me questioningly. I just shook my head and she shrugged.

“Okay.” She turned off the autopilot. “Start a turn to two-twooh degrees and begin your descent at three hundred feet per minute. Oh, and see if you can dislodge that witch and her cat from the tail section, will you?”

“Don’t laugh.” I sighed. “Halloween night I found myself chasing an old lady up Commercial Street, thinking she was the witch. Two hours later your friend Kerry had me tied in knots. It’s gone on and on. How do witches pick their victims? Why me?”

“Because you are an innocent at heart.” She adjusted the trim slightly.

Soon I was happily involved with the aircraft and forgot about the hapless Lewis. When I had the plane lined up with Runway 22, Cassie took over and greased it in. As she performed shutdown procedures, I asked if she needed a ride. She said no, she had several chores to do.

“Like what? Should I wait for you?” I asked.

“Oh, like vacuuming the plane. Doing the exorcism ritual. You know, routine.”

“Oh, bug off about that!” I growled. “I’m getting paranoid as it is.”

She laughed and ten minutes later Fargo was licking my face and whining to tell me how mistreated he had been. Then he remembered he was mad at me and sulked under the kitchen table, staying there until Mom put a plate of food in front of me.

She fed me an early dinner of leftover meatloaf, mashed potatoes and little brussels sprouts with butter and caraway seed. It tasted infinitely better than the lobster and steaks I’d been eating. I gave her a rundown of my trip. She told me Sonny, Mitch and Peter and the Wolf were looking for me. The list was growing.

After my warm welcome and hot meal, everything seemed to catch up with me, and I couldn’t stop yawning, this time for real. Mom suggested I go home before I fell asleep at the table.

As I got to my feet the small gold buckles on the side of my slipons interlocked and I fell against the sink. I managed to grab it, almost hitting my chin, and clumsily pulled myself erect.

“Fucking bitch witch!” I hissed. “I’m sorry, Mom, excuse me.”

“Are you hurt?” Mother leaned down and disentangled my shoes.

“Only my dignity . . . for the twentieth time.” I was so angry my head was spinning.

“Alexandra, you worry me a little. Are you really letting this so-called witch’s curse bother you? Surely you don’t believe it?”

I sighed. “Oh, of course not. Not really. But crazy things keep happening—all in a row, it seems. I scraped my shin on Mary’s boat. Spilled tea all over Wolf’s living room and made a fool of myself in front of Sonny’s girl. Knocked a guy’s beer over in the Rat. I hurt my wrist at Cassie’s, had not one but two pens dry up on me during an interview and lost a bra strap in Providence. I don’t know—I seem to be falling apart. I’m just tired . . . and my ear hurts, it plugged up on the plane. It’s nothing, Mom. I’m just frazzled. And everybody teases me—well, Joe and Cassie.” I sounded so childishly piqued even I had to laugh.

“Darling, crazy things happen to all of us all the time.” Mom smiled. “And sometimes they do seem to go in streaks. But witches only count in movies, and I don’t think anyone is filming you. Now, darling, go home and rest.” She struck a silly pose. “Abracadabra! Presto! Hoot, mon! Faith and begorrah! Holy cow! Ipso facto! Hey, nonny nonny . . . the curse is gone!”

I loved that woman. And I smiled all the way home.

I walked into the house, which seemed a little strange to me, even after so short an absence. Fargo seemed to feel the same. He ran from room to room . . . sniffing . . . whuffling . . . checking. I hiked the thermostat, started a pot of coffee and walked over to the telephone message machine, which was blinking as if it had undergone a nervous breakdown. I hit the replay and sat down to listen.

Peter would appreciate a call. Click. Wolf would really like to hear from me. Click. Mitch had not heard from Sonny. Click. Mitch had to reach Sonny. Click. Wolf needed to talk to me right away. Click. Someone would like to speak to Arthur. Click. It was imperative that Mitch speak to Sonny or me. Click. Would I please call Sonny at the following number . . . Click.

I picked up the card that Sonny had left with me, giving his hotel number in Gatlinburg and compared it with the one I had just jotted down from the tape. They were not the same. I dialed the new number and was told I had reached Gatlinburg Towers. It sounded expensive. Paula was obviously not a cheap date. No wonder Sonny was thinking of high-paying jobs. Finally I heard Sonny say hello.

“Where are you?” I asked. “What happened to Riverside Crest?”

His voice was hearty and jovial, as if he were addressing the Kiwanis Club. I knew that meant someone was with him, doubtless the lovely Paula. “Why, ah, we decided to stay here. It’s right downtown and it’s got an indoor pool, a spa, hairdresser, shops—”

“Sounds like the Kansas City Sheraton.”

“Could be for all I know. Paula felt the Riverside was a little, uh, rustic and thought she’d be happier here in more traditional surroundings.” There was just the slightest accent on thought that told me Paula wasn’t happy at the Towers, either.

“I see. Look, why haven’t you called Mitch? He is about in hysterics by now.”

He sounded surprised. “Why should I call Mitch?”

“Didn’t you get my message at the Riverside? A young houseboy who worked for Peter and the Wolf got his head beaten in. He was found at the amphitheater, robbed of a bunch of money.”

“No, I didn’t get any message.” Now he sounded bitter. “I wouldn’t have, we never checked in. Paula took one look at the lobby and ‘just knew it wasn’t our kind of place.’ I don’t see why Mitch can’t handle it, but I’ll call him. He probably just needs a boost. Everything else okay? Mom okay? Fargo?”

He sounded lonesome. On vacation? With a pretty companion? “Everything’s fine. Mom’s good. Fargo’s glad to be home. Me, too. Anyway, I won’t keep you. Have fun at the Kansas City Sheraton. Or is it the Atlanta Marriott?”

“Who can tell? Maybe the Hong Kong Hilton. Bye.”

I decided to let Sonny call Mitch before I did. It would doubtless be a much happier conversation that way. There wasn’t much I could do for whoever was looking for Arthur, whoever he might be. So, reluctantly, I looked up the number for Peter and the Wolf.

As I started to dial, I thought back to my conversation with Sonny. He and Paula had never checked in at the Riverside, so they never got my voice-mail message. I wondered who did, and suddenly a heartwarming, wicked scenario rolled before me. The bridegroom carries his bride across the threshold of Room 617 at the Riverside Crest. “Alone at last!” he cries.

“Not quite,” says the lovely bride. “Our phone is blinking. It must be voice-mail.”

“Odd. Who’d be calling us now? Well, dear, check it. I’ll I open the champagne.”

The bride picks up the phone, listens, “ . . . sorry to bother you when you’ve just arrived, but . . . there’s been a bludgeoning murder . . .” Shriek. Thud.

Once in a while I come down with acute schadenfreude, so I was smiling broadly as I dialed the phone. I hoped Wolf would answer. I really didn’t feel up to Peter’s high drama—luck was with me.

“Thank God, Alex, we thought you’d disappeared.” Wolf sounded a bit dramatic himself.

“I was away on business, as I mentioned. What’s up?”

“I think we’re going to be arrested for that little bastard’s murder.”

“Oh, Wolf! Just because the cops ask you a few questions does not mean imminent arrest! Mitch may be sounding tough because he’s a little unsure, working the case without Sonny as fallback. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about unless, of course, you did it.” I made it a question.

“Of course not. But old lady Ethel Winger lives next door, and you know her. She saw the tiff between Peter and Lewis and told the cops. By now it sounds like something between a young Ali and a demented Tyson. And Peter’s watch—Mitch asked to borrow it, said we’d get it back and provided a receipt, but I don’t like it. I don’t understand.”

“I don’t either, but I wouldn’t worry. As far as the fight . . . well, you didn’t lie. You just weren’t completely forthcoming. And there’s no real reason you should have been at that time. Just let this play itself out, Wolf.”

“Well, we do worry. We want to hire you, Alex. With Sonny and the Chief away and that idiot Anders in charge, God knows what could happen. Obviously somebody had it in for Lewis. We were pissed at him for walking out, and what he did to Peter was unforgivable. But we didn’t kill him. However, if the police just keep looking at us, they’re never going to find anybody else. You have to find that somebody else, Alex. We did not do it!”

I wished he would stop saying we. Did he mean neither of them did it, or did he mean that only one of them did it, without the assistance of the other? “Wolf, I’m really tired. I just got in. I’ll see you around ten tomorrow, okay? We’ll decide then if I can help you in some way, although I really don’t imagine you need me. We’ll talk.”

After dragging a few more reassuring remarks out of me, he finally hung up.

Bed. What I needed was my own familiar, beloved bed. I yawned and went to let Fargo out. I got halfway to the back door and the front doorbell rang. Fargo gave two or three ferocious barks and then quit. It must be someone he knew.

“Listen, Fargo, if this isn’t somebody with a million in cash and two filets mignon, take ’em out! You hear me? I want company like you want your ears cleaned.” He wagged his tail and grinned and I opened the door.

It was Mitch, looking cool, collected . . . and rested, dammit. Obviously, Sonny had calmed him down and made him feel like Hercule Poirot.

“Sorry to bother you, Alex. I know you’re tired. But Sonny thought I should update you right away. He thought you might want casually to suggest to Peter and the Wolf that they retain a lawyer.”

God, I hate nights like this.