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There was plenty of mystery about Jeff Randall's crashed plane. Both Jeff and $30,000 in registered mail were missing

IT was a swell morning for cloud hopping, and although yours truly was dog tired, the old heart was singing a song of joy. And should you ask me "why," I can give you the answer easy. I had just completed a three-weeks' inspection tour of the major airlines, it being a part of my job as an inspector of the Civil Aeronautics Authority, and I was on my way back to Washington, D. C., to hand in my report—and then take a ten-day leave.

So naturally I was happy. Just three more hours in the air to Washington, and then—

And then, as I swung a few points northeast toward St. Louis, I happened to glance down over the side—and saw it. No, not St. Louis. I saw a crashed ship in an emergency landing field. There was a crowd of people around it, and two or three planes that had obviously brought them to the crash. I could see the Union Airlines markings on that crashed ship, and I could also tell that it was one of their fast night mail jobs.

Even at that, I was tempted to go right along on my way. What a lousy break—with me three hours from a vacation! Anyway, I killed the throttle and slid down to have a look at what was what. Nobody seemed to notice that I had landed until I started pushing my way through the crowd. Then came a nasty voice from my left.

"Well, well!" it clipped. "The big shot, in person. Going to take charge, sonny boy?"

I jerked my head around and saw a chunky, mean-eyed pilot with a sneer this long stretched across his mug. I didn't recognize him for a second, and then it came to me with a jolt. This guy's name was Calvin Ryan, arid two years ago he had got the idea that he could do any damn thing with an airplane, and to hell with the rules. I'd got his license suspended for eighteen months.

Well, I just gave him a look and pushed on through the crowd to the wreck. There I bumped into Marcus Spaulding, the operations manager of Union Airlines. His eyes widened when he saw me.

"Just passing over," I grunted, and stared at the wrecked ship with no corpse or even a live pilot in the pit. "What happened?"

"Plenty!" Spaulding said bitterly. "It looks like I hired a rat. Last night Jeff Randall took off west on his usual run. When he was two hours overdue at Wichita, the boys went looking for him. Cal Ryan spotted this wreck from the air, came low enough to see that Randall wasn't in the pit, and highballed back to the field.

"I was off last night, but they phoned me at my place. We all got here about two hours ago. Randall isn't here—and neither is a mail sack with thirty thousand dollars' worth of registered mail. God, and to think—"

"Stop thinking!" I cracked at him. "It wouldn't be the first time that a mail pilot crashed and walked to the nearest town with the mail."

Spaulding gave me a funny look and snorted.

"That's right, you once flew with Randall, didn't you?" he grunted. "Well, Thurston is the nearest town, and it's only three miles away. This wreck has been here for a good six hours."

I GOT sore and started to say something when I was cut off.

"But Jeff was a good pilot!" I recognized the protesting man as Joe Harmon, one of Union's veteran pilots. "He could land on a dime in the dark. But this is an emergency field—and with lights!"

"They were on?" I asked him sharply.

"How the hell do I know?" he barked, as though I had accused him of something. "I never knew of them to be out. At least, not on any of my runs."

"Anybody checked?" I asked, and got no answer.

Nobody had, so we did that little thing right then and there. And we made a hell of a funny discovery. I mean, that field was usually lighted on all four sides. The lights on the lee end, close to the wreck, and those on the two sides worked well enough. But the string of lights across the windward end of the field didn't work—because the cable had been cut at the control box!

"Which means," I mused aloud, "that when Jeff had to force-land, he saw that only the lights on three sides were on. So he landed close to the lee-end lights, so that he wouldn't over-shoot the field."

"And crashed with thirty thousand in registered mail!", Spaulding snapped.

"Act your age!" I told him, but I began to feel sick inside.

I felt worse about half an hour later when the chief of the Thurston police showed up.

When Jeff and the registered mail had first been found missing, the cops and State troopers had been notified. They'd immediately gone on a hunt—and found no trace. Every road within twenty miles had been covered.

"We'll still keep hunting," the police chief said to Spaulding, because Spaulding hadn't bothered to introduce me. "And we'll find him, too. He can't get far in this State."

"I hope you're right," Spaulding grunted. "Let us know the very moment, though."

The cops went away, and I took over then.

"Get the crash truck out here and cart this plane back to the field," I ordered. "I want to look it over and find out why Jeff Randall had to forceland."

"And what good will that do?" Spaulding groaned. "He's gone, and the registered mail with him."

"But a C. A. A. inspector has got to do something, Spaulding!"

No, I didn't make that crack. It was playboy Cal Ryan. I swung around and made a remark myself.

"So you found the crash, huh?" I grated. "How come none of the others were with you?"

Ryan's eyes got ugly; then he laughed.

"Because I was first off," he said. "I was the reserve pilot on duty. And in case you're wondering, I thought it a good idea to fly the route Jeff was to fly, instead of doing it by way of the North Pole."

So I gave him a tough look and let it slide. A couple of mechanics had arrived with the other planes, so I detailed them to stay with me, and ordered the rest of the boys back to the St. Louis field to send out the crash truck. They took off; and when they had gone, I had a couple of cops shove the bystanders back a ways.

THEN I made as good an examination of the ship as I couid, under the circumstances. And I found—nothing. The throttle was all the way back, and the switch was off. That seemed to mean that the engine had gone blooey in the air, and Jeff had taken no chances with fire in the event he did crash bad.

Along about nightfall the crash and the greaseballs and I arrived back at the St. Louis field. Skipping supper, I ordered the engine to be completely dismantled and everything checked.

But it was no dice. We couldn't find a single thing wrong with the engine or the ship. While I carefully checked the ignition, Operations Manager Spaulding straightened out all the gasline feed pipes and poured water through them to make sure they weren't clogged. He did that because the tank in the center section of the top wing was dry, whereas the main tank was still full.1 But that didn't prove anything.

1: In this particular type of ship, the gas was drawn from the main tank up into the top centersection tank by means of a wind-driven fuel pump. Gravity feeds the gas from the top center-section tank down to the carbureter.-Author.

"Well?" Spaulding breathed sadly at me when we were all through. "I guess you'll have to agree, now, Inspector Jackson. But I'm awfully sorry. I liked Randall, too."

"I damn well won't believe it!" I snapped, because I couldn't think of anything else to say.

"And he had at least a six-hour start," Cal Ryan spoke up, but avoided my eyes.

"Have it your way!" I snarled at them. "But you're overlooking one important item."

"What's that?" a startled voice cried in back of me.

It was Joe Harmon, Union's veteran pilot, and when I turned to him his face was strained with eagerness, though at the moment you could have called it anxiety, too.

"Jeff Randall," I said to him. "If Jeff planned it all out so's he could get away with thirty thousand smackers, don't you suppose it would occur to him that a check would be made to find out why he had to force-land? And wouldn't he realize that would spoil the picture?"

"Maybe you've got something there, big shot," Ryan grunted, but he said it with a damn funny tone to his voice.

And at that moment one of Union's employes came dashing into the repair hangar. His face was white, and his eyes bugged out. He ignored us all and went straight up to Spaulding.

"Mr. Spaulding, the Thurston police!" he gasped. "They just phoned. They found Pilot Randall in a swamp near that emergency field. He's dead! The police say he was murdered. They didn't find the mail sack!"

WELL, I can skip quickly over the next six hours, because it was all routine checking. Jeff Randall was dead, right enough. And he had been murdered. The back of his skull had been caved in by some blunt instrument. It hadn't been done by the crash, either.

So what? So when we got back to St. Louis again, I still stayed in charge. The cops resented that, and so did most of the personnel of Union Airlines. But I didn't give a damn what they thought. I was going to find Jeff Randall's killer if it was the last thing I ever did.

One thing was certain. The killer was an employe of Union Airlines. Why? Because only the killer knew that Jeff carried thirty thousand dollars in registered mail. Because he knew the route Jeff would fly. Because he knew how the emergency fields were lighted. And because, finally, he knew what time Jeff would be passing over that particular field.

Yeah, I was ready to swear on any stack of bibles that the killer belonged to Union Airlines. And when I got Spaulding, Ryan, Harmon and all the others into the office and started questioning them, they got the idea of what I felt without my telling them.

"I know what you're thinking, big shot," Ryan said when I got through asking some questions I had in mind. "But figure this out, first. How was a man on the ground able to make a pilot in the air come down? And how was he able to make that pilot crash—and knock himself out in the bargain?"

"Right!" Spaulding nodded, and scowled at me. "Even grant that Jeff Randall did answer some ground signal, how in hell could anybody make him crash? Jeff was the best night-flying pilot on the line."

The answers to some of my other questions? Well everybody vowed they could prove where they'd been all night. And no two or three people alone knew that Jeff Randall was carrying the equivalent of thirty thousand bucks. That is, it could have been easy for anybody to check the mail cargo manifest and find out. Also, Jeff had had no quarrels with any of them. They were all his friends. The kid had been liked.

"But one of them liked him enough to kill him!" I muttered aloud savagely. "Somebody who could fix it so's he'd come down at the field!"

I cut off the rest as the idea I'd had inside my brain came rushing forth. That top center-section tank had been bone dry. How many gallons did it hold? As I asked myself that question, I started running over to the repair office. Inside I got hold of the fuel log books and took a look.

Check and double check! The top center-section tank held just enough gas to take Jeff's type of mail ship from the St. Louis field to the emergency field at normal cruising speed. In short, somebody must have done something to prevent that gas tank from receiving more fuel once it was dry—thus starving the engine and killing it so that Jeff would have to land.

SURE, I know! We'd inspected that engine from A to Z and found—nothing. But I wanted another look, and this time I wanted it alone. Well, I hung around for awhile until only the night shift was on duty, the others having gone home. Then I borrowed a flashlight from one of the mechanics, scooted around the main hangars and slipped into the darkened hangar where Jeff's crash was laid out like a corpse.

Funny, but as I walked across the cement floor I suddenly saw something I hadn't noticed before. The undercarriage struts were split and buckled back under the belly of the ship, but they were split at a point where there?was a deep groove in each strut. A deep groove, as though they'd been smacked with a steel bar about the thickness of, say, half your little finger.

I studied those gash grooves for a couple of minutes, but could make nothing out of them. Then I straightened up and started inspecting every section of copper fuel lead that had been disassembled hours before. Length after length of it was okay, though still somewhat bent and twisted by the crash. And then, suddenly, as I started to put flown a piece I'd finished inspecting, something about it caught my eye.

I leaned forward, brought my light closer, then dropped everything and spun around. No, I couldn't swear I heard a step. Couldn't swear I heard a single sound. I guess I can only put it down to this thing that science calls your "sixth sense". Anyway, I spun around and spun around just the ten millionth of a split second too late.

The hangar roof fell down on top of me, exploded inside my brain in a beautiful conglomeration of spinning stars and comets. I fen down a great big black hole, but on the way I flung out my hands and managed to clutch hold of something. jn a crazy, abstract sort of way I knew it was a man's wrist I held. Then I didn't know anything more, because I got clipped again, and this time there was no fooling about it....

I woke up with the sun in my eyes. Only it wasn't the sun. It was the lights of the repair hangar. I was on the tool bench, stretched out. One of Union's medicos was patching up a head that ached so badly, I figured it must be connected to a vibrating machine. And standing around, watching anxiouseyed, were Spaulding, Ryan, Harmon and two or three others.

"What happened?" Spaulding asked when he saw that I was awake. "And what were you doing in here? Ryan heard a groan as he passed by and came in to find you in a heap, out cold."

"Finding things must be a habit with him," I grunted, and gave Ryan a look that said plenty.

"Thanks," he snapped in a tight voice. "You forgot to hang out your 'don't disturb' sign, or I wouldn't have bothered. Besides, I didn't make sure who it was."

"Cut the wisecracks, Ryan!" Spaulding barked at him. Then, to me, "But what did happen, Inspector Jackson?"

That's me, George Jackson, only they usually call me "Inspector."

MY head felt like a rotten tomato, but I sat up, against the medico's protest, pushed him to one side and reeled over to the fuel pipes I'd been checking. I didn't want any of them to see that last piece I'd been going over.

And—the last piece I'd handled was gone! There was another piece in its place. Yeah, the same length, and twisted and bent. But it wasn't the same piece. Score one for Mr. Lousy Killer, and ye gods, how my head hurt! So I leaned against the bench and looked dumb and confused—which wasn't hard at the moment.

"I don't know," I mumbled. "Couldn't sleep and decided to have another look at the crash. Something smacked me, and I woke up to find you guys here. No, Doc, I'm okay. I'm going to bed."

I left them, and did just that.

Well, next day I took a hop out to that emergency field and hunted for something I was damn sure I'd find. I did, and that made-it positive that I knew why Jeff Randall had crashed. All that remained was to be positive about the killer.

So for a couple of days I hung around the St. Louis field, acting like I was still conducting an investigation but in reality doing nothing. Then I breezed down to Washington, reported everything to the boss and got his okay and cooperation. And then, early one evening about ten days after poor old Jeff had died, I returned to St. Louis by train, and went out to the field in a cab.

The one thing that would make my plan work, if it was going to work, would be for no one at the field to recognize me. So I eased around a bit and, to my relief, found out that neither Spaulding, Ryan, nor Harmon were on deck. At least, I didn't see any of them.

Next I found out who was to fly the mail west. It was a young fellow named Cox. I located him about an hour before he was to take off. He recognized me, all right, but I put on my hard face, cut short anything he wanted to say and took him over to the far?ide of the field.

I guess he must have violated some rule recently and thought I'd found out and was going to put him on the carpet, because he acted a little scared.

Ohce we, were alone and out of sight, I acted the louse myself. Maybe somebody else could have accomplished the same thing in a much smoother way, but I was thinking more of the future than of the present. Sure, you've guessed it, eh? I wanted to take the mail out that night.

So I clipped young Cox on the button, put him to sleep, tied him up and stuck him in a little shack where he'd be safe for quite awhile—at least long enough until I could get in the air. I'd hated like hell to sock him—but you know how it is.

Well, I slipped into Cox's flying stuff, pulled down the goggles to hide my big baby blue eyes and went back to the tarmac. For twenty minutes I had the jim-jams for fear somebody would spot that I wasn't Cox. Anyhow, nobody did. Right on the dot I got my take-off all-clear signal from the night dispatcher on duty.

I EASED that mail load up into the night sky, banked west and throttled her to cruising speed—with the old heart just busting against my ribs, and sweat pouring off my forehead to trickle down into the fur piece of my goggles.

Yeah, I knew that everything was going to be okay for two hours. It would be just a nice two-hour joyride with the stars for company. But it was what would happen at the end of those two hours that made my dinner feel like a load of buckshot in the old belly.

Anyway, the hour hand finally went around twice. I sighted the lights of the emergency field, and my liver did an outside loop. The windward end lights were out! I had just about spotted them when the engine in the nose coughed, sputtered, said "to hell with it" and quit cold. I jiggled the throttle and fussed around instinctively, but it was no soap. The engine had stopped, and it stayed stopped.

How did I feel? Don't ask me, son, because I can't remember. Yet I do have a hazy recollection that I told myself to try a night landing any place else but on that three-quarters lighted field. However, I pulled the old nerves together, cut the ignition, hauled back the throttle and started gliding down, so that I'd land close to the string of ground lights along the lee end of the field.

It took me maybe a couple of minutes to slide down through the night, and in that time I remembered everything I'd ever done since the time the doctor told my folks it was a boy. And in between thoughts I did plenty of praying to Lady Luck. And the last thing I did, when I was leveling off about ten feet up, was to brace myself rigid in the pit with my free hand.

And then it happened!

An invisible giant threw the red light against me! I smacked something that tried to sling me all the way back to St. Louis. The plane bucked like a steer, reeled this way and that. It plunged, dipped, skidded, did everything to try and hurl me forward against the instrument board.

But I'd braced myself, and though I felt, as though my arm was going to snap in the middle, I managed to avoid a terrific belt on the forehead. However, before the wreck finally called it a day, I d taken plenty of beating on other parts of my body.

The instant the ship settled for the last time, with its hose in the ground and its tail slanting toward the stars, I unsnapped my safety belt, set myself and waited, with all kinds of screwy ideas raging through my brain. Then suddenly came the sound of somebody running. The next second a shape loomed up beside the wrecked plane. I saw an upraised arm and a wrench clutched in the hand. It sliced down far my head.

No, I didn't wait. The instant that wrench went to town I ducked, twisted and leaped, all in one continuous movement. A sharp pain in my shoulder told me that the damn thing had landed, but I hardly felt it. I was clear of the ship and locking my arms about a man's body, and the flames of all hell were exploding in my brain.

WE hit the ground hard, but with me on top. The wrench hit me again, but my right fist drove deep into a belly. Then I twisted, ripped up my hands, caught hold of the hand that clutched that wrist and wrenched sharply. I felt the bone snap, and my ears rang with a scream of pain.

Then the scream was cut off short, because I had crashed my left up under the guy's right ear. I can still feel the tingle that raced up my arm, across my shoulders and down my other arm to the fingertips.

Panting and gasping for breath, I got up on my feet and stared down into the unconscious, blood-smeared face of Marcus Spaulding, Union's operations manager. And then I froze stiff as a voice grunted off to my left.

"Not bad, but not neat, either."

I whirled and stared at Cal Ryan, walking toward me. He was putting a gun back into his pocket.

"What the hell are you doing here?" I demanded as a sudden fear leaped through me.

"The same as you, Hawkshaw," Ryan said, and pointed at Spaulding. "To get him. Been here every night I could, just hoping. But maybe you figured more answers than I, eh?"

"Meaning just what?" I asked.

"We both figured what made Jeff Randall do a forced landing," Ryan said. "He had no other way out, because no gas could come from the main tank. Why? Because our killer here had crimped the length of fuel line from the main tank to the fuel pump. But we didn't notice that at first."

"Yeah," I muttered. "I'll say we didn't. That so-and-so was clever as hell."

"But not clever enough," Ryan said. "They never are. Well, we didn't notice who had monkeyed with that fuel line, because it was Mr. Marcus Spaulding who checked the fuel lines—while you checked the ignition. And that night you took a second look, one of his hired thugs belted you and switched fuel lines just to make sure.

"As a matter of fact, I was heading for that hangar to have a look myself when I saw someone dash out on the run. I couldn't be sure in the darkness who it was. But of course I had an idea."

"That always helps," I added a bit testily.

"No wisecracks, pal," Ryan growled. "Well, when you left I decided to come out here as often as I could apd wait. And dammit, I still don't know why you and Jeff crashed!"

"Simple," I said and felt better. "On each side of this field you'll find a tree; lots of 'em, in fact. The day after Jeff died, i came out here for a look. I saw marks on a tree on each side where a heavy cable had been looped around. That cable made the grooves in Jeff's, landing gear struts. In short, Jeff and I, in landing close to the lee-end lights—because the others were out—hit a cable stretched across the field no more than a couple of feet off the ground, so you'd never spot it until too late.

"The crash knocked Jeff out. Then Spaulding, who was waiting—he pulled it on his night off, of course—finished Jeff with a wrench and made off with the mail in his car; probably after hiding Jeff's body and the severed cable. But, how come you played detective, and why in hell didn't you give me a hand with him just now?"

"DIDN'T I say I just got here?" Ryan snapped. "And besides, should I worry what happened to your heck? But about the detective part. I came to Union Airlines on the request of the vice-president, who happens to be an uncle of mine. Things have been going funny at Union, and he asked me to keep an eye open. He suspected Spaulding of some funny stuff, but didn't have a shred of proof. I didn't even get a hunch myself until Jeff Randall died."

"But Spaulding must have got wise that he was headed for trouble," I noised aloud. "So he decided to get two birds with one stone. Put the company in a jam, and get some heavy dough before he got the gate. The dirty stinking louse!"

"And he came plenty close!" Ryan breathed. "There's fifty thousand in registered mail right there in your plane. I saw it on the manifest. I Wasn't coming out here tonight, but when I saw that manifest, I—Hey, then you must have seen it, too!"

"Nope." I shook my head and grinned at him. "But I knew it was there. I arranged with the Po^t Office Department to make you birds at Union think you were carrying fifty thousand west tonight. I figured Spaulding wouldn't pass up one last big haul. There isn't a bent dime in that mail sack, Ryan.

"Now, help me turn this louse over to the Thurston police, and you might also lend a hand in inducing him to turn back that thirty thousand he did get. I've got to get back to St. Louis, myself. I owe young Cox a couple of drinks, and—well, would you like to join us, Ryan?"

So we got Professor Spaulding back to St. Louis and stuck him in the cooler. The cops, we figured, would do the rest. Then we picked up young Cox, but before I could get around to explaining things, we had all had one drink too many.