“Wait!” Jed called. “Look!” He pointed down to our right.
Cutting through the forest a road appeared. It was only two lanes, but at the moment it was fairly straight. We were dropping fast. Jed banked to follow the pavement as it snaked through the trees.
“Go into the back and hang on to something,” he said firmly. “This is going to be messy.”
Maxwell and I did as we were told. Frantically we searched to find some straps and rope to tie ourselves to the fuselage. With the ground coming up very fast there was very little time to prepare. We sat down, grabbed hold of the frame, and prayed.
“Here it comes!” Jed yelled.
A deafening tearing sound echoed through the plane as the wings clipped the pines lining the road. The sound of prizefighters working the speed bag screamed though the plane just a second before we hit the highway. The impact slammed me against the floor, but I still managed to hang on.
Suddenly we were in the air again and a feeling of weightlessness came over us. Before we could adjust to it the plane pounded the ground a second time. Again we were thrown violently against both the floor and the walls. I hung on and tried to keep my head clear.
The right wing tore off the plane with a withering ripping sound after we hit the roadway the second time. We lurched crazily to the right and screeched along the asphalt with the left wing out in front. A shower of sparks swarmed around the plane.
Trees flew by the open door as Maxwell and I tried to tighten our death grip on the interior of the fuselage. We continued to careen out of the control for what seemed like a very long time. Suddenly the left wing cracked with a loud roar. A second later the end of it pitched up and crashed onto the roof. The ceiling dented but held.
We were bombarded with a terrifying metal screech. My ears rang. Then suddenly after a lifetime of noise and horror compressed into a few seconds it everything became silent. My body still felt like it was moving, but miraculously what was left of the plane had come to a stop. No one spoke.
Clouds of dust and smoke billowed through the fuselage. Both of the main wings were gone and I imagined that the tail section was too. The ceiling and side were crushed and dented, but for the most part our metal tube had held.
Slowly the air began to clear. Across from me Maxwell lay silently against the wall. Before trying to get up to go to him I began to check if I was still in one piece. Before I’d gotten very far I heard a voice from the cockpit.
“Anybody back there,” Jed coughed. His voice was surprisingly strong.
“Yeah,” I gasped, “I’m here.”
I looked again across the rubble at Maxwell. He moved.
“Brix!” I called.
Slowly his eyes opened and he began to focus. After a couple of deep breaths he rubbed his face. “Best damn movie special effects I’ve ever seen,” he said as he struggled to his feet.
After a while the air cleared and we heard pounding on the side of what was left of the plane. The three of us stumbled to the door. Several cars were stopped having been blocked by the wreckage. People had climbed up the side of the demolished plane trying to get to us. Willing arms helped us climb out of the debris.
We were a little banged up, dirty, and a bit disoriented, but amazingly that was all. The plane didn’t do as well. The right wing was entirely gone and the outer half of the left one was folded over the top of the fuselage. Most of the tail section was missing. Apparently Jed had aimed everything perfectly and miraculously had been able to keep the main body of the plane, while twisted and dented, remarkably intact.
Details of what happened next are a bit sketchy due to my disorientation from the crash. But it seems that state trooper cars and two ambulances were quickly on the scene. As soon as Maxwell was recognized we received the red carpet treatment and were immediately spirited off to a local hospital where we spent the night.
Things were much clearer the next morning. I learned that we were in Municipal Hosptial in Elco in northern Nevada. We had crashed along one of the few straight stretches of Route 229 that snaked through the Humboldt National Forest. Looking at a map later it appeared that we were about halfway between Jackson and LA. Apparently Judge and his pilot were going to parachute out near Twin Falls, Idaho expecting that we’d crash later in a remote section of the southwestern part of the state.
As my mental fog continued to lift it became obvious that there were immediate problems to solve if we were going to get out of the hospital. And as a result of our famous passenger it wouldn’t be just the cops who were going to have a long list of questions. But before we started answering I had to make sure that we were all telling the same story.
I laboriously dragged myself into a standing position next to my bed and noticed that Jed and I were sharing the room. He looked up at me as I stumbled over to him. Other than a bandage around his head and tape across his right hand he looked surprisingly well.
“How do you feel?” I asked leaning on his bedpost.
“Considering,” he smiled, “pretty damn good.”
“Before we talk to anyone we need to get our stories straight. Talking about Judge or his partner would make things very complicated.”
“Oh I get’cha,” Jed followed. “Three on board, not five.”
“Right. Can you make up a believable story about what might have happened to the plane?”
“Yeah,” he nodded, “I can come up with something.”
“OK, great. Now, where’s Brix?” I said as I stumbled to the door and looked down the hall. Two rooms away a large crowd had gathered.
“He’s probably got his own room,” Jed answered and pulled himself into a sitting position. “Rank has privileges, you know.”
“Yeah,” I said over my shoulder, “I think I found it. Let’s hope he hasn’t said anything.”
Quickly I pulled on what was left of my clothes and wobbled down the hall. I was moving all right, but I kept one hand on the wall just in case.
As I called to Maxwell a doctor and a nurse ran over to me. When they tried to steer me back to my room I called again. Somehow over the din in the hallway Maxwell heard me and, using his status as America’s favorite movie hero, waved them aside. At his next command the room emptied and the medical staff warily ushered me in and closed the door.
Maxwell, ever the movie star, was sitting up in a chair next to the bed. Newspapers and telegrams were strewn everywhere. Word of the crash and its famous cargo had obviously gone out on the wires overnight. If anything, he was more famous than ever.
Looking around the room I shook my head, “how do you do it?”
“Maybe I’m a better actor than you thought,” he smiled. Seconds later he was on his feet grabbing me in a suffocating bear hug. We patted each other on the back and then stood motionless for a moment or two. After we let go I noticed tears in his eyes.
“Jeez JP,” he said in an unsteady voice, “I was scared to death.”
“Well, of course. Me too. But, you did what you had to. We wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t held off Judge.”
“I guess that’s true, isn’t it?” He said turning back to me. His expression made it appear as if that was the first time he’d actually been proud of himself. Maybe for once he’d been just as brave in reality as he appeared in his films.
Listen to me Brix,” I said seriously. He looked at me and frowned. “What have you told them?”
“About the crash?”
“Nothing,” he furrowed his brow in concentration. “As far as they know you and I were just flying back from a quick getaway and had engine trouble. Did I say something wrong?”
“No,” I assured him, “that’s perfect. Don’t give them anything. Don’t even hint that about the other two on the plane. Jed’s going to make up a reasonable story about what happened to the plane. Then, with luck, if we can satisfy the cops, we’re going to be able to walk out of here.”
“I hope so.”
He nodded and opened the door letting a flood of staff workers back in. Maxwell worked the crowd like the pro he was. After at least a half hour of picture taking and autographs an older doctor broke through Maxwell’s adoring public and ordered them out. First he gave the star struck staff a brief chewing out and then turned to the two of us.
The broad shouldered doctor unnecessarily told us how lucky we were and we vaguely smiled back at him. He then opened the door and brought two state troopers into the room. Maxwell and I went through a minimum of detail about the crash while continually referring them to Jed. No one, it appeared, had any idea about the other two passengers.
Joining us next was a representative from the Federal Aeronautics Administration. We went over the same ground again providing the same sketchy details as we had previously. After about another hour of questions he nodded, thanked us, and disappeared down the hall to talk with Jed.
Much to our annoyance we were told that we had to stay one more night in the hospital for “observation”. Despite that inconvenience it was appearing that somehow we’d been able to answer everyone’s questions to their satisfaction. As the day wore on the crowds surrounding Maxwell’s room thinned. Jed and I were allowed to roam the building and we spent the rest of the day eating and sleeping.
When the newspapers were delivered the next morning we were headline news. Actually Maxwell was headline news but, fortunately for our egos, Jed and I were mentioned briefly in the article. I knew that Doris would be frantic after hearing about the crash. I hoped that reading about it, even though she wasn’t going to be able to talk to us, would be good enough for now. She had to understand that getting Tenny and Sarah to Michigan was her first priority.
After lunch the older doctor again came to our rooms. Along with a nurse they checked our blood pressure, looked in our eyes, made sure our reflexes were adequate, and then simply let us go. Maxwell, Jed, and I met in the lobby and, as soon as we stepped outside, were met by a throng of over 50 reporters. Naturally they quickly descended on Maxwell letting Jed and I escape. But before we were able to make it to the curb we were met by large man in sunglasses who was obviously not press.
“Jed Fowler and JP Parker?” He asked with his wide glasses cutting into his thick red cheeks. When we didn’t respond he continued. “I’m Vito Cadrucci, Brix Maxwell’s agent. He called me from the hospital and I’m here to pick you up. If you wait here, I’ll just be a minute.”
He strode like a linebacker into the crowd that had engulfed Maxwell giving the idea that he’d done this many times before. Within seconds he led his boss out of the throng and toward a limo that was parked at the curb in front of the hospital. We followed and soon we were seated in a vehicle even more spacious than Mangiocotti’s. Vito slid into the front and with one command an unseen driver took us away.
A large spread of food had been set up for the three of us complete with beer. I decided that I could get used to this lifestyle as long as it didn’t take a plane crash to qualify. We stuffed ourselves and hid behind the tinted windows as we sped out of town. A long ride back to LA lay ahead.
“My Vito’s a good man,” Maxwell smiled. “He’s been with me for years. I called him last night and told him the situation we were in.”
“I hope you pay him well,” I said and Jed nodded.
“He does all right,” Maxwell took a long pull on a beer. “This has all been so amazing. The things I found out, what we were able to do, the fact that we’re still on this side of the grass…”
“Yup,” was all I said.
“Come on JP,” he smiled, “now what?”
“Now we go back to LA to catch a murderer,” I said flatly.
Jed and Maxwell looked up.
“You know?” Maxwell said with his eyes fixed on me.
“Can you prove it?”
“Maybe,” I set my jaw. “I’ll explain as we go.”
I was sound asleep in the back of the limo by the time we rolled up next to my house. Maxwell shook me a couple of times and slowly brought me around. After shaking hands with both of my death-defying buddies I opened the limo door. My favorite movie star playfully poked me in the arm as I climbed out.
“Call me,” he said.
“I will. Maybe in a couple of days.” I smiled and then turned to Jed. “I know we both thanked you a hundred times in the hospital. It still may not be enough.”
Jed smiled back and nodded. “I saved my own ass too, you know.”
The limo sped off as I walked to the door. Approaching the house I heard the phone ringing but it had stopped by the time I was inside. Even though it was late my long snooze made me awake enough to unpack. After that I still had energy to burn and began to clean up around the house. While going through the mail that had collected the receiver jangled again.
“JP!” Doris’ voice practically leaped through the phone.
“Oh, it’s great just to hear your voice,” she practically yelled. “Are you all right?”
“Only a little banged up. Maxwell and the pilot are fine too.”
“Thank God!” The tension slowly eased out of her voice.
“How are you? Where are you?”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “Don’t tell me where you are just how you are.”
“You think that they’re still…”
“I don’t know, but let’s not find out.”
“OK,” my redhead’s smile came through the phone. “We’re fine, safe, and should be there tomorrow. Oh JP I was so scared. What happened?”
“You know I can’t tell you over the phone,” I cautioned, “but don’t worry. I think the whole thing is going be over in a couple of days.”
“Doris,” I tried to assure her, “don’t worry. I love you and it’s all going to be over soon. Now, we need to be careful and get off the line. All right? You understand?”
“Yes,” her voice was heavy, “I know. I love you too, you big lug.”
“Call in a couple of days?”
“I will,” she said and then I heard her hang up. I held the phone for a minute afterward trying to make the moment last and then, suddenly tired, dragged myself off to bed.
The next morning I called a cab since my car was still on its way to Michigan. After an expensive, despite being fairly short, ride to the train station downtown I booked a ticket to Santa Monica. I needed another visit with the “good cop” from several days earlier. My only real hope to bring this insanity to a close was to get Detective Murphy’s cooperation.
The train dropped me off at the Santa Monica station in the early afternoon. I grabbed a quick sandwich at a sidewalk stand and was told there that the stationhouse was within walking distance. After a brisk 15-minute hike that helped to work some of the soreness out I walked up the stone steps to the Santa Monica Police Department.
A burly scowling desk sergeant was grumbling some bluntly worded questions into a phone and scribbling on a pad of paper. Eventually he looked up and rudely asked what I wanted. I ignored the attitude and simply asked for Murphy. The sergeant stonewalled me until I told him who I was. All of a sudden his eyes opened wide and without another word he pointed me to a flight of stairs in the rear of the building. At times it was helpful to be famous, or was it infamous?
Reaching the second floor I easily found the room he’d described. It contained several desks that were arranged in rows with six to eight foot tall partitions separating them. A severe looking middle-aged secretary frowned at me as I stood in the doorway and gruffly asked what I wanted. We repeated the same routine that I had downstairs with the sergeant. With my name again breaking the impasse she quickly pointed a bony finger toward the back of the room. Murphy’s cubicle was back by the rear wall. Above it was a slowly oscillating wall fan rearranging the stale smoky air.
Murphy was on the phone. His sport coat was draped over his swivel chair and his short sleeves again revealed his Navy tattoos. A large asymmetric ceramic ashtray that looked like it might have been made by one of his kids dominated his sloppy desktop. Several very short cigarette butts had been stubbed out in it. He looked even paler than I remembered. Apparently he didn’t know he was living in sunny California.
“What the hell,” he said when he saw me. Quickly he turned his attention back to the phone. “No, no, not you honey. Look, a guy’s here I gotta go.”
“Detective?” I nodded slightly.
“You’re big news, you know that? Murder suspect, plane crash survivor… Jeez.” Murphy was plenty steamed, but with his colleagues eyes trained on him he was trying to maintain control.
“How you doing?” I affected a casual wave.
“And I thought I told you to stay in town,” he barked as he stood up next to his desk. “What the hell are you doing flying all over North America. I ought to lock your ass up right now. You know that?” The longer he talked the more the veins began bulge in his neck.
“Can we talk?”
His pale eyes danced. “Knock yourself out.”
“No,” I protested, “not here. How about an interrogation room? Just us.”
“Damn,” he almost grinned, “that’s the first time a suspect ever took me.”
He motioned with his head and we walked down a hallway behind his desk to a small windowless room. Like the other one I’d seen it contained a rectangular table and three high backed wooden chairs. The room was fairly bleak and yet still friendlier than the last one I’d been in with him and his “bad cop” partner Carruthers.
“You got a lot of nerve,” Murphy complained lightly as we entered the room. “What do you want to do, rub our face in it? You weren’t even supposed to leave town and then you and your Hollywood friend get splashed all over the papers. Are you trying to piss me off?”
“All right,” I began after we sat down, “you know as well as I do that I’m no suspect. Even Carruthers does. So let’s cut the bull. I was a cop in New York for several years before I went private. I know how the game is played.”
“Tough guy huh?” Murphy leaned back in his chair and folded his thick arms across his chest.
“So,” I taunted lightly, “how’s the case going?”
“Which case is that?”
“Clever,” I said stiffly. “You got anything?”
“None of your damn business.” Murphy leaned in toward the table. His face became hard. Without his partner’s attitude he was having trouble maintaining his good guy persona.
“That’s what I thought. They’ve done a better job than I thought.”
“Who did?” Suddenly interested his eyes bore into me.
His expression made it clear that the whole department was under heavy pressure to clear the Standish case. I wondered how many extra man-hours the dicks had been forced to put in. It didn’t matter that Standish was a vindictive over sexed blackmailer. The public didn’t know her that way and, as usual, perception was reality.
“Why are you here?” His voice began to develop an edge. “You just showing off?”
“Come on Murphy,” I stood up and leaned over at him with my palms flat on the table. “You want to clear this case?”
“And, I suppose, you know who did it?” He slumped back into the chair like the air had been sucked out of him.
“Yeah,” I said still leaning forward, “I think so.”
“Oh great. A retired shamus from the wrong coast is now going to trump up something in order to save his own hide. Jeez, you must think I’m pretty desperate.”
I took my hands off the table and walked over to the far wall. Whether this was going to work or not depended on how frustrated the department was. I stretched my back and killed some time looking at the memos that were posted on the wall. Maybe the silence would work on him.
“Well,” he said impatiently after a couple of minutes of quiet. I was apparently making progress.
“You want to check me out?” I pressed. “I can give you some numbers to call in New York.”
“We already did,” he sighed as if he didn’t like what he’d learned. “What do think, we’re amateurs? We even talked to a guy who said he was your ex-partner, a guy named Klein. He vouched for you.”
“So?” I stalled trying to force Murphy to initiate something.
“You wanna tell me what you got?”
“Telling you won’t do it,” I said shaking my head and again walking away. “I can explain everything, but…”
“…you can’t prove it,” Murphy made a face as he completed my thought. “Swell. What do want me to do with that?”
“OK, look,” I turned back to him. “I need to trust somebody and I guess you’re it. You know, there’s way more to all this than just the old gal’s murder. First, I believe that there are three more dead bodies related to this stretched between here and Wyoming. And there would have been another two if Maxwell and I hadn’t stopped it. Remember that Marina owner that was beaten up and then rescued by what the paper called ‘a mysterious Negro’?”
That got his attention. “Yeah, what about that?”
“The mysterious Negro was me.”
Murphy sat down and ran his hands through his hair. He looked up at me a couple of times shaking his head. “Three more bodies as well as you telling me that you’re a colored guy. One of is bats, pal, and I know it’s not me.”
“What we need to do is to get everyone together in one place and then lay out what we know.”
“What we know?” The cop was apoplectic. “You telling me that I can’t do it?” Murphy dropped his elbows on the table and then rested his head in his hands.
“Listen to me,” I suggested in a calmer tone. “This is a company town despite how big it is. I’ve got nothing to loose here, but you do. If I’m wrong, lock me up. Make up anything. Just remember, there are other lives at stake here.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Get everybody together and I’ll explain the whole thing.”
Murphy lifted his head and looked at me. He was tired. This bizarre case had been dropped in his lap and with his being outside the studios they had been able to stonewall every effort. I hoped that he was frustrated enough to take me up on my strange offer.
“Why don’t you pick them up and bring them in?” His voice sounded weak as the fight leaked out of it.
“Oh there’s an idea,” I rolled my eyes. “You want me to make a bunch of citizen’s arrests? How do you suppose that would go over?”
“OK Parker,” Murphy said as he slowly stood up, “we’ll do it your way. But you better have the goods.”